Experts on the dynamics of abuse strongly recommend separate, individual counseling for abuser and victim, not couples counseling. If abusers refuse to work through individual counseling on their personal issues, that creates a stumbling block to relational reconciliation.
This blog post was written by Julie Anne Smith, with contributions by Brad Sargent. The post was reviewed by Naghmeh Abedini.
- Counselors with expertise on dynamics of abuse recommend individual counseling – for both the husband and wife – not couples counseling. Couples counseling implies the abuse is equally both partners’ fault, when this type of abuse is definitely more one-sided. It will never be “fixed” if the abuser does not address the personal problem first, and couples counseling gives the abuser multiple opportunities to manipulate the situation and triangulate – get the counselor to side with him against the victim.
- On Valentine’s Day, Saeed Abedini sent a Facebook message about love to his supporters, thanking them for their love, prayers, and encouragement. But, in his post, he also implied that his wife, Naghmeh, is blocking progress in their relationship by not joining him in couples counseling. The context and the language give an example of manipulating the situation to get public opinion to side with him.
- Franklin Graham, who has acted as an advocate/promoter for Saeed Abedini since his release, has no known expertise on the dynamics of abuse, yet has pressured Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini toward couples counseling.
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Yesterday, Pastor Saeed Abedini, who was recently released from an Iranian prison, posted the following note as his first Facebook post in 4 years, thanking his many supporters:
Warm Greetings Dear Saints!
We Love because He first Loved us. (1John 4:19)
This is my first post on Facebook after 4 long years of imprisonment. I see there is a LOVE story between us as I went through hardship of imprisonment by you showing your support with sending hundreds & thousands of letters of encouragement and LOVE to the prison. 1000’s of cities and countries and locations gathering for pray vigils, sending gifts to my wife and children, etc.. .
You created a LOVE story that even Muslims in Iran talked about.
My beloved sisters and brothers, I want you to know how much I LOVE you and how much Your prayers and support changed my situation and how much I am thankful for your heart and Care.
I am grateful for marriage counselors who have been helping me but my wife’s relationship with me is not good at this point, so we need prayer that she joins this counseling process with us.
Free By Christ For Christ
On his post, he included pictures of himself and his beautiful children, including this one:
Some will look at the Facebook note and pictures and will:
- Thank God for his release.
- Thank God that Saeed is back together with his children again.
- Be thankful that they were in consistent prayer for the Abedini family all these years.
- Notice Naghmeh’s absence from the pictures.
- Be moved to pray for Naghmeh, that she would change her heart and seek marriage counseling.
In less than 24 hours since his post went up on Valentine’s Day – February 14, 2016 – at 7:38 pm, there have already been over 3,500 “likes,” 425 shares, and 750 comments. Many who reached out to Saeed left supportive comments, encouraging him with their words, and saying they were praying for Saeed, for his marriage, for his family. However, a few commenters have been critical of Naghmeh directly, and some have attempted to shut down any commenters who bring up the Saeed’s issue abuse, primarily through “sin-leveling.”
You can read those for yourself to see how they are responding overall to him, to her, to them. Meanwhile, let’s consider his post more closely. I’ve seen Saeed’s language and approach before. It’s typical flowery manipulative abuser language meant to draw people to his side. Notice the context, plus what he puts there, what he doesn’t mention, and what is missing:
- The pictures of Saeed and his children, with Naghmeh obviously missing tugs at people’s heartstrings knowing that this family is not whole.
- There could be no better day to choose than Valentines Day to solicit support for his cause. People will notice the contrast in the day when most people are celebrating love, he is soliciting support by revealing that Naghmeh is dropping the ball on marriage counseling.
- A healthy pastor with no vindictive agenda would have briefly said, “Pray for my family.” But instead, Saeed blames his wife under the guise of soliciting prayers for the “marital” problems. For instance, note how he says that “my wife’s relationship with me is not good” – not, “my relationship with my wife is not good” or even “our relationship is not good.” Even from just that one twist of a sentence, how easy is it now for Saeed’s supporters to see Naghmeh as the stumbling block to reconciliation, and certainly not Saeed?
- These words are not words of humility and honesty. They are manipulative words meant to draw people into Saeed’s sad plight. Even if we were to assume that the problem is a marital issue, an honest response would be one where he admits his failures as well. We see none of that.
- A husband interested in saving his marriage would never put his wife under the proverbial bus by publicly disclosing her faults … ever. He would protect her at all costs and try to win her back.
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It’s important to note that there is more going on here than just Saeed and Naghmeh. Their relationship has been …. crowded. Prior to Saeed’s public notice on Facebook, Franklin Graham has been a primary mouthpiece for Saeed since his release. Saeed flew home to the US on Graham’s private plane, and the first pictures of him are with Franklin Graham. Saeed was immediately whisked off to the Billy Graham Training Center in North Carolina. Saeed’s first interview after his release was with Graham’s friend, Greta VanSusteran.
Franklin Graham inserted himself directly into the heart of the Saeed Abedini story, and we all heard about the Abedini family, filtered through his personal perspective – that Saeed and Naghmeh have a troubled marriage and need counseling. Here is what Franklin Graham posted on his Facebook page days after Saeed’s release:
While we rejoice at his new freedom, we now lift him and his wife Naghmeh to the Lord for healing in their marriage. Other than God, no one knows the details and the truth of what has happened between Saeed and Naghmeh except them. There’s an old saying that there are at least two sides to every story. I can tell one thing for sure—not everything that has been reported in the media is true.
As a minister of the Gospel, I have tried to be a friend to both and to assist them in getting Saeed home and in getting access to any help that they may need. Clearly, there is a great need for prayer for their relationship and their family. God has answered prayer by bringing about Saeed’s release from prison, and now, Satan would like nothing more than to continue to destroy their lives. It is my prayer that this will not happen. (Source)
More about Franklin Graham’s prominent role in a moment.
Returning to Saeed’s Facebook post, I found his comment, “we need prayer that she joins this counseling process with us,” conflicting with the public messages Naghmeh has reported. I have read nothing about Naghmeh not wanting to have the marriage restored. Nor have I read anything about Naghmeh not wanting to seek counseling, so I contacted Naghmeh.
After hearing from Naghmeh, I believe Saeed is misleading people with his comments, and in turn, is turning people away from Naghmeh and painting her to be the primary problem.
Naghmeh confirmed to me that she has indeed been and is currently seeking individual counseling. She gave me the name of her counselors (which will remain private). She also mentioned another well-known therapist/author with whom she has been in touch for additional counsel. Naghmeh has also stated publicly that her pastor, Bob Caldwell, is aware of Saeed’s abuse and of the appropriate boundaries she has sought to put in place.
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Now, some may wonder why Naghmeh is only seeking private counseling versus marital counseling. Keep in mind that a few months ago, Naghmeh revealed that during most of her marriage, she has been the victim of abuse by Saeed. Is couples counseling the best choice of action for a marriage in which there is abuse? Abuse experts are in agreement that couples counseling is not appropriate when there is abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline has an article, Why We Don’t Recommend Couples Counseling for Abusive Relationships, and offers further explanation:
In order for couples counseling to be successful, both partners must be willing to take responsibility for their actions and make adjustments to their behavior. Abusive people want all of the power and control in the relationship and will focus on maintaining that imbalance, even if it means continuing unhealthy and hurtful behavior patterns. Many callers to the Hotline have related stories of trying and “failing” at couples counseling because of an abusive partner’s focus on manipulating the sessions to place blame, minimize the abuse, and attempt to win over the therapist to their side. If the therapist tries to hold the abusive partner accountable for these tactics, they will often refuse to attend further sessions and may even forbid their partner to see the “biased” therapist again. The abusive partner may even choose to escalate the abuse because they feel their power and control was threatened.
We can see evidence of this type of control in Saeed’s public comment. He minimized the abuse by never even mentioning this topic and, as mentioned earlier, he also put blame on Naghmeh for not seeking counseling. Saeed displayed common tactics of abusers.
Some may dismiss secular counselors’ views on separating couples when there is abuse. This article, “When NOT to Do Marriage Counseling,” gives a Christian perspective. It is by Winston T. Smith who teaches and counsels at Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He sees the importance of individual counseling over couples counseling when abuse is present in the relationship:
However, there are situations in which marriage counseling is not the best approach and may actually do more harm than good. Marriage counseling presumes that a couple’s problems are shared and that each spouse is partly responsible for what is happening. But there are situations in which one spouse’s behavior is so destructive (e.g., addictions, abuse) that marital problems are best understood primarily as the result of that behavior, rather than the shared responsibility of both spouses. In these situations, it is best to focus on that individual before addressing the marriage. There are other times when one spouse’s weaknesses, hidden issues, or lack of motivation may limit the effectiveness of marriage counseling. Here again, it may be wise to meet with spouses separately for a season, both to address individual problems and to lay the groundwork for working with the couple together.
Winston T. Smith further explains the character and behavior of abusers:
“[A]buse is a pattern of destructive and dehumanizing words and behaviors that often involves physical battering, intimidation, and attempts to isolate and control. If it becomes clear that abuse is present in a marriage, arrange to see the spouses separately.”
Here is another article you may want to read on the importance of separate counseling: To fix abusive relationships, a counselor must have expertise. The principles in this article are especially important to thinking through the larger context of counseling in this all-too-public relationship. That is because it appears that someone with no understanding of abuse has been pushing for couples counseling: Franklin Graham.
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Ok, now with regard to my conversation with Naghmeh, I think it is important to note that Saeed has not personally reached out to Naghmeh since he has been back in the US. It has only been through Franklin Graham, on Graham’s initiative, not Saeed’s. It should be noted that the post from Saeed on Facebook was really the first time Naghmeh has seen/heard anything directly from Saeed on the subject.
Franklin Graham has been the one to push “marriage counseling.” Why is that? Franklin Graham has not demonstrated any expertise on abuse issues that I am aware of. He has no business putting himself above this couple and telling them how to solve their issues. Why has he intervened to take a pastoral/oversight role here? Why isn’t he backing away from the situation and allowing Pastor Bob Caldwell, their long-time pastor, to do his job?
Naghmeh had been counseled by her pastor and her counselors that the “abuse must be dealt with first before any marriage counseling can occur.” But that is not the setup Franklin Graham devised. Naghmeh specifically noted that when Saeed came to the US, Franklin Graham first “wanted to put us in a cabin together” at Billy Graham’s training facility, The Cove. Naghmeh declined this offer and only agreed to go if there was counseling, and separate cabins with guards. Graham finally “agreed and picked marriage counselors.”
Naghmeh realized what was going on, and at the last minute changed her mind, knowing she could not go under the conditions Graham had created. She knew that individual counseling had to be first, and this was not the direction Graham’s chosen counselors planned to take. His path was solely couples counseling.
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In conclusion, I hope that it is clear that Naghmeh has not declined counseling. She has already been seeking appropriate counseling for the specific issue that has destroyed her marriage: abuse by her husband, Saeed. If there is no success in individual counseling for Saeed and Naghmeh, no marital/couples counseling will be beneficial. The horse must come before the cart.
I applaud Naghmeh for seeking wise guidance in her very difficult and public crisis. She could have easily followed the very powerful and influential Franklin Graham, but his way is not the recommended path chosen by those with expertise on the dynamics of abuse. In fact, his way would have enabled delay in addressing the issues involved. His way would have been counterproductive for Saeed and Naghmeh as individuals, and for their marriage relationship.