Dissecting Problematic Marriage/Abuse Rhetoric

Dear Elder Holland,

We need to talk about today’s Facebook post.

I love that you and Pat have such an amazing marriage.  I love your folksy and relatable advice about laughing at mistakes, and being quick to forgive, and remaining committed to conflict resolution and a long-term vision of happiness.

I appreciate, too, that amidst the cheerful marriage advice you throw in an exception: “I realize there may be an abusive or violent situation giving a legitimate reason to get out of a marriage.”  I have long noticed, and appreciated, that you are consistent in condemning verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and recognizing that exception.

It is out of respect for your advocacy that I am writing.  Because your next sentence, no matter how well-intentioned, will be destructive to many abuse victims:  “When there is a legitimate exception, you’ll know, your priesthood leaders will know, and God will know.”

I sincerely hope your words are inartful because your marriage is so happy, you lack personal experience with toxic relationships.  Please listen.  My goal in writing is to break down where the rhetorical problem lies in that sentence.

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The “General Rule” Problem

Elder Holland, your Facebook post ended with a rule:  “The rule is, you work and pray and serve and love and laugh and forgive and hang in there. That’s the rule. You can make the marriage you want. That is a gospel truth.”

For healthy marriages, this rule is excellent.  Talk to each other.  Pray together.  Serve each other.  Love and laugh and forgive each other.  But that rule only works if both parties are equally committed to it.  In unhealthy and abusive marriages, the exact same advice is toxic.

In abusive relationships, the victimized spouse is often subject to gaslighting (intense mental games) that leave them without any sense of the rules or guidelines that govern their relationship. They have no power in their relationship because the essence of abuse is that one spouse assumes power and control over the other. Victims are desperate for clear guidelines. They are desperate to control any part of their relationship — including their own bodies and actions, which are too often proscribed by the abuser. They will latch onto any rule, and will not consider that they might be an exception.  They will think to themselves, “I am no exception. I’m not allowed to be an exception. This marriage is hard; all marriages are hard. I just need to sacrifice, to forgive, to follow this rule and the gospel more, and then my marriage will be healed.”

This impulse is heightened, Elder Holland, by the ambiguous use of “you” in “You can make the marriage you want.”  Victims will read the “you” instruction as singular (If I am more kind, it is in my power to save my marriage), rather than plural (If we are together committed to being more kind, we have the power to save our marriage).  Victims will also instinctively read into your instruction its converse.  (If I do not have the marriage I want, it is because I have failed to make it that way.)  Victims will place the entire burden on fixing the marriage on themselves in an effort to attain agency and improve their relationship. They will resolve to follow your advice and love and forgive and serve more.  Being Christlike means shrinking their own needs, ignoring their pains, and complaining less.

This is incredibly toxic for victims of abuse.  Why?  Because the abusive spouse will not reciprocate.  The abusive spouse doesn’t engage in self-reflection and think “I also need to apologize and love and serve more.”  Instead, the abusive spouse uses this rule to control their partner: “you, victim, need to follow Elder Holland’s advice.  A prophet has told you that you need to love and serve me more. That includes forgiving me for hurting you. You are hurting me by not forgiving me. It’s cruel of you to still be mad at me for something that happened in the past.”

It’s hard to capture how confusing and twisted the emotional knots become. The abuser’s language intertwines with what the victim is telling themselves in their grasp for agency (i.e. I need to love more, so that my spouse stops hurting me). It deepens the toxicity: the victim will try to become more “submissive” in order to take the moral high ground by being the most loving and forgiving. But the very act of “Christlike submission” teaches the abuser that he/she can get away with more violence and anger and abuse.

If the victim ever untangles the emotional knot enough to dare to call the abuser on it — “no, wait, Elder Holland’s advice applies to you, too, I need you to be nicer to me” — the abuser will turn around and gaslight the victim. “Exactly, just like you want me to be nicer to you, you need to be nicer to me, by forgiving me for screaming at you.”

It’s maddening. The abuser co-opts the language of abuse to blame the victim for the abuse the victim is experiencing. The abuser often genuinely believes the fault lies in the opposite direction.And the victim believes it too — because people crave the use of their agency, and if the problem is the victim’s fault, then solving it is is in their control.

It’s terrifying for a victim to admit this is false — to admit the victim does not have control.  The victim cannot change the abuser’s behavior.  No amount of love and forgiveness and patience and kindness and silence will make the abuser stop. Only the abuser can make that choice. It is terrifying for a victim to admit that the power to stop their pain in the relationship rests exclusively with the person that harms them.

In order for victims of abuse to be able to see their relationships is NOT reflected in the rule, it helps to re-state it with a focus on reciprocity:  “The rule is, you both respect each other — that includes working and praying and serving and loving and laughing and forgiving and hanging in there and so much more. That’s the rule. Together — and you have to do this together — you can make a marriage you both want.”

Critical to the success of any marriage is kindness by both spouses.  Both spouses need to cultivate the humility to gently accept fault, apologize for causing pain, laugh at mistakes, and pray together to find healing.  Victims should be affirmed in the realization that if their spouse is incapable of apologies or self-reflection, that is a serious problem.  The lack of reciprocity is a fundamental relationship conflict to address with a trained therapist.

The “Legitimate Exception” Problem

Elder Holland, you carved out a “legitimate” exception to the general marriage-advice rule for cases of abuse.  Eventually, as abusive marriages worsen, victims will start to wonder if they qualify as an “legitimate exception.”

But here’s the difficulty:  As far as I know, LDS leaders almost never define what constitutes a “legitimate exception.”  Mentions of abuse are usually made like your statement today — as passing references in more positive marriage advice.  This causes victims — who, remember, are desperate to exercise agency — to spend an enormous amount of spiritual energy trying to classify  their pain and misery as the result of their own sin or selfishness, per the rule.

Although there’s been a few Ensign articles by experts, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a General Conference talk describing abuse in detail as one partner assuming power and control over the other. No leader has given a full-throated general conference talk on abuse since 2008 — and it was vague.  No one has walked through the long lists of abusers’ common dominating, manipulative, narcissistic, gaslighting behaviors.  (A great place to start? Anything by Lundy Bancroft. Or John Gottman.)  No one has parsed out the cycle of violence, common myths, the difference between abuse and unhappiness, and whether / how to know that it is okay to leave.

Quite possibly, this dearth in specific material is because a de facto requirement for Priesthood leadership is a healthy marriage.  (Although certainly, lay leaders are also human and may be struggling). Still, lay leaders who are in happy marriages often struggle to  comprehend abusive dynamics, and thus are ill-equipped to advise on them.  Like with so many other issues the church counsels on, delving deeply into individual experiences and learning how to respond to abuse is key.  

The “Priesthood Leaders Will Know” Problem

Elder Holland, all of that background helps focus on the single most problematic line for abuse victims reading your Facebook post: “When there is a legitimate exception, you’ll know, your priesthood leaders will know, and God will know.”

I know you’re quoting doctrine / policy in that sentence.  The Gospel Topics page says: “Victims of abuse should seek help immediately, normally from their bishop or branch president.”  I know the Church updated its policies earlier this year to say Priesthood leaders should never counsel an individual to stay in an abusive situation — but a necessary prerequisite is the leader correctly identifying the situation as abuse.  The last time I saw the Handbook, it also expressly instructed Bishops to never counsel divorce.   This places bishops in the position of advising a relationship they can neither counsel to continue nor counsel to end.

You may not have intended it, but the collective weight of your sentence plus church policy tells abuse victims that they need spiritual approval from their Priesthood leaders to get divorced.  Once again, victims will instinctively read in the converse of your statement:  If they do not receive Priesthood approval, the victim is the sinner who needs to stay in the abusive marriage, potentially under penalty of spiritual condemnation and church discipline.

This brings up an ever-present concern: what if the Priesthood leader lacks facts, lacks context, does not receive revelation on this question, does not classify the situation as “legitimate” abuse, or otherwise gets it wrong?

Realistically, leaders often lack relevant training or personal experience to correctly identify the situation.  Lay clergy are not therapists or social workers.  They are not trained to recognize abuse, they’re not trained to ask appropriate questions to get to the bottom of abuse, they’re not trained to address abuse,  and they’re not instructed on how to separate out their spiritual concern for the welfare of the victim and the abuser.

Moreover, as lay clergy, they’re subject to human foibles and biases such as not believing the victim, or showing a preference for the abuser due to a personal relationship or concern for their career.  (Any personal opinions surrounding #MeToo and the current political situation may also affect their views.) They are also, by definition, men, and may not fully understand abused women’s experiences.

Elder Holland, your advice suggests that determining whether a person’s situation is a “legitimate exception” may hinge on the guidance of someone who who may not have the time or skills or resources to fully understand the situation, who may not believe the victim, who may not comprehend the violence that is written between the lines of the victim’s story, and who may interpret church guidance as a prohibition on advising victims to leave. Yet as Priesthood leaders, with authority and stewardship over victims, their guidance will carry enormous spiritual weight. Respectfully, priesthood leaders may not recognize that a situation before them is a “legitimate exception.” When their well-meaning misuse of priesthood authority compounds with the violence of an abusive spouse it can be doubly destructive to the victim. The only confirmation that should determine whether a person tries to escape an abusive situation is their own.

A Suggestion For Fixing The Problem

Elder Holland, given your history of empathy for abuse, I believe you were trying to be inclusive and considerate by acknowledging abuse in your Facebook post.  For that, I thank you. But the passing nature of the “legitimate exception” phrase, plus emphasizing Priesthood leaders role in recognizing that exception, is concerning.

Please, Elder Holland, the next time you offer marriage advice touching on abusive relationships, please offer a bit more nuance and depth.  Here are my own feeble words for this sentiment:

“I would not want anyone to misinterpret what I’m saying—I realize my advice only applies to generally healthy marriages.  Sadly, too many marriages are unhealthy. Frequent anger, belittling, mistreatment, cruelty, fear, or violence should not exist, yet they are all too common.  When one person takes all the power and control, this use of their agency can destroy the relationship. Such toxic behaviors are often unfixable, and are always unfixable by their victim. If your marriage is suffering, know that God loves you. Our Heavenly Parents do not want you to be scared, or unsafe, or miserable.  They loves their children and desire to give all peace, joy, and happiness. You, with deity on your side, may reach the decision to leave your relationship. You don’t need my permission or your bishop’s permission to do this— but in case you need my reassurance, you have it. The gospel of Christ can set you free. Through Him your wounds can be healed.”

Thank you for your thoughtfulness and time in considering this letter.



10/2/2018 UPDATE:  This post has been updated to reflect thoughtful edits from a friend who is a domestic violence expert, which I am not. 

Supplemental BCC Readings

How Do Women Spiritually Override Bad Priesthood Leadership?

We Must Do Better On Violence Against Women

Domestic Abuse Resources For Bishops

Practical Tips For Helping Victims Of Abuse




  1. Well said.

  2. Thank you for this. I feel like a hand was just taken off my mouth, like I have been given a voice. He was always given the benefit of the Priesthood doubt.

  3. These are important words, Carolyn. Thank you.

  4. Sometimes I wonder just how truly inspired our apostles are. They seem to try hard enough, but they also get the very simplest of messages wrong an awful lot.

  5. Happy Hubby says:

    I don’t see any way to improve what you said. You clearly called out the problem and consequences of the vague language as well as giving a very clear example of what would be better. I just hope it gets to the top leaders, but I fear it won’t.

  6. Excellent. Needs to be said. And some thoughts:
    1. It’s unfortunate but true that the original works reasonably well for a man talking to men, who are statistically more likely to be the abuser rather than the abused, and who are culturally more likely to feel empowered and able to choose.
    2. So long as we persist in a male only leadership structure, we need high ranking men giving this new and improved message. (Apologies, Carolyn. In my opinion even President Jean Bingham giving this message wouldn’t do the job. People would say “if this is about taking counsel from a Priesthood leader, I’ve got to hear it from a Priesthood leader” (meaning a Q15 man).)
    3. It is human nature to mis-read or.mis-understand the relationship between “gospel rule” and “legitimate exception.” Even after fixing “legitimate” there will remain a numbers problem. Your recast answers this beautifully with the “too many” phrase. With marriages at about 10 per thousand persons per year and divorces at about half that (Utah was 8.1 and 3.6 in 2015; U.S. was 6.9 and 3.1 in 2015; the crude statistics appear to be very similar in the U.K and lower (marriages and divorces) averaged over Europe) it would be refreshing to hear what “legitimate” means, or for that matter what “too many” means: 20% of those divorces? An equal number of the marriages that don’t divorce? More?
    4. The Church is obviously (obvious to me) in a bind and hopefully in transition. There is a long tradition of Priesthood leader counsel on matters of marriage and divorce. Not just in the Mormon tradition but in all the Western religious traditions I have any knowledge about. The Brighamite polygamy era just enhanced the Church’s role. But it is pretty clear (to me) that lay ministers are not well equipped and should not be in the advisor role, or the judge role, or the cheerleader role. Breaking up (getting lay male leadership out of the marriage business) is hard to do.

  7. Kristine N says:

    Thank you. My only Mormon boyfriend was also the one who was most toxic. I don’t think he knew what he was doing. I don’t think he was that self-reflective. The failure of that relationship (which was just dating!) was seriously damaging spiritually as well as emotionally for the reasons you outlined in the “General Rule” section.

    I wish we discussed abuse better in general. Next time I can, I’m going to work this into a lesson.

  8. DoubtingTom says:

    Great post! The only thing I would comment on is this line: “The only confirmation anyone needs to escape an abusive or miserable situation is their own witness, backed by God.” I would amend that to read “…their own witness.” Period. Why take out the “backed by God?” Because even one’s concept of God can be tainted by the social institution one associates with and with the individuals one assigns as having moral authority to speak for and in behalf of God. If the abused has a concept of a God who discourages separation or any other false or harmful concepts, that very incorrect notion of God may preclude that individual from getting a confirmation they need to do what is healthy for them. They may even incorrectly assign uncomfortable and scary feelings about leaving an abusive spouse as coming from the adversary, if that interpretation of those feelings falls within their belief system.

    So I would simply say the abused only needs their own witness. That’s it.

  9. HB from SC says:

    As a woman who left a relationship that had become terribly toxic, and whose priesthood leadership had actually counseled us to divorce…then wrote him an affidavit saying they’d technically never seen abuse….thank you. My story was and continues to be a nightmare, but we are safe.

  10. So good — this is such an important post. It would be so wonderful if Elder Holland would see and really take this post seriously. I have no idea if that’s even possible in this day and age. Does any Church leader today view himself as a legitimate recipient of “bottom-up” feedback?

  11. Great response, Carolyn. I appreciate you outlining the problems with Elder Holland’s statements so clearly.

  12. Kristin Brown says:

    I would add financial deception and abuse.

  13. Last winter/spring, the thing that really disturbed me about the whole Rob Porter scandal was how their bishops had failed to either recognize the abuse were unwilling to recommend separation/divorce. In the aftermath, there were several other anecdotes from around the internet of how bishops were not able or willing to recognize abusive situations. To be fair, there were also anecdotes of bishops who did help.
    Similarly, the thing that bothers me in Elder Holland’s statement is how confident he appears that bishops will be able to recognize divorce. It seems to me that past experience is at best a mixed bag. Sometimes bishops recognize abuse and help, and other times bishops do not (or will not) recognize it. I know that Elder Holland likes to be optimistic, but I cannot help but wonder if his optimism here is misplaced.

  14. Rich Harshaw says:

    I think what Elder Holland was saying is “if your marriage is hard, work through it” and “if your marriage is abusive, it’s okay to get out.”

    That seems very straightforward to me. I think most people know what abuse is without having to read a bunch of books about it.

    So I’m trying to pinpoint what your concern is.

    Is it that abused (mostly) women will read Holland’s post and say “My marriage stinks, but I’m not being abused, so I just need to try to work it out”… when in reality they actually ARE being abused but they don’t want to attach that label (of abuse) to it? If so, i’m not sure how this post would affect that situation for good or for bad.

    Or is it that a woman who feels she is being abused might come to her bishop, who, because of lack of training, might tell her she’s not actually being abused (even though she really is)? If so, again, I’m not sure how this post would affect that situation for the good or bad. It might be helpful for the church to give guidelines or training to bishops on how to define and identify abuse, but even that wouldn’t affect this post.

    The clear truth in Holland’s post is that abusive relationships should be dealt with… individually, with priesthood holders, and with God himself.

    But that was the exception to the main intent of the post, which was to counsel those in marriages that are HARD (not abusive, but hard) to work on them. He tells people to stop questioning if they should be in the marriage and instead to go about fixing it.

    My 2 cents.

  15. Rich Harshaw – Carolyn’s proposed revision offers examples of what abuse looks like and clarifies that it takes both partners working on the marriage to save it.

  16. Rich, Carolyn’s post explicitly addresses what her concern is; it’s not disguised, and it’s not frivolous. Honestly, if you can’t catch it, that’s a problem of your reading, not her writing.

  17. Rich: The first link in the supplemental readings at the bottom is a much more in-depth assessment of exactly what the problem is. https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/02/15/how-do-women-spiritually-override-bad-priesthood-leadership/

  18. Identifying your audience complicates this. Even though I fit in only one category, I am confident that these messages communicate differently to men in non-abusive relationships, to women in. non-abusive relationships (not the same as to men because of structural and sometimes explicit sexism), to abusers, to victims, and to counselors/advisors/bishops. That’s at least five audiences already. I think the OP does a good job of blowing this open, but on reflection and reading comments here I think there’s even more work to do, depending on the audience or on how many audiences you choose to address at the same time.

  19. Triggered again! Long but not long enough ... says:

    Thank you Carolyn! We do need to teach more in church about what real life working together looks like, and what real-life emotional abuse looks and feels like. We also need to de-emphasize distorted “ideal” relationships—not just because people feel discouraged when they do not fit these ideals, but because in our church—which is in many ways like an addictive family system— the emphasis on the ideal leads to more emotional abuse in actual families. Beyond these challenges, the emphasis on perfection to have an eternal family in the afterlife harms families in current real life.

    One thing I want to emphasize is that even the idea of a “personal witness” of if you are a “legitimate exception” to “the rule” is especially hard for victims of emotional abuse. A person may not arrive at this understanding for many years, and by then it is much harder to address because of entrenched patterns, and the damage to the victim is deep which makes it even harder to recognize or leave or create effective boundaries. And, usually by then there are family or life circumstances that make leaving just hard hard hard. It is destructive and insidious, as Carolyn describes.

    Every time there is a post on BCC about this topic, it is a triggering experience for me. I will start out thinking I am in a good place, and start to write a little comment, thinking to add to the discussion or emphasize a point. But eventually I just get overwhelmed by how much I want to say, overwhelmed by my emotions as I return to my own memories. Afraid of giving too much detail or too much characteristic wording in my written voice that I will somehow be recognized by family or neighbors. Or, afraid of not qualifying or being authoritative enough, so that BCC readers will attack what I write on this topic. Or, afraid that somehow my email address or real name will get published, or even recognized by someone behind the scenes at BCC. Personal resilience absolutely goes away when you return to that triggered place.

    Emotional abuse is subtle and pervasive and damaging and generational. And it is perhaps worse in some ways than physical abuse because it is harder to recognize, and so it gets internalized for so long. (Of course, physical abuse also involves significant emotional abuse.)

    Our church emphasizes families, and yes it does help families in some ways. But it could do so much to really help members on this front, and I would argue that with our huge emphasis on families, our church does have an obligation to do much much better in this area. Currently, though, our church actually exacerbates and even creates emotional abuse in so so SO many ways. I wish I could say more.

  20. Parsing an Apostle’s words at its best!

  21. I wonder what is meant by “gospel truth”. Is it meant in a folksy way or in a doctrinal way? Elder Holland ties this to agency so he may intend the latter. I believe that some people have fewer opportunities, or support, or even just capacity to alter the environment of their lives. In our church we hyper focus on what we can do. I believe this can help to motivate some to make positive life changes. I also believe that for those with very little ability to change their circumstances this focus can be extra frustrating.

  22. Thank you “Triggered Again” for sharing even a small portion of your invaluable thoughts.

  23. Good post, Carolyn. Priesthood leaders can be a resource to turn to, but nobody should feel like they need the permission of their priesthood leaders to decide they’re being abused or to leave an abusive situation.

  24. Billy Possum says:

    Thank you, Carolyn. I hope he reads it, and shares it! I do think the sarcasm in your tone was unfortunate (it’s not the rhetorical choice I would have made, but whatever) but your analysis and argument are impeccable.

  25. In discussing at church the “individual adaptation” clause of the Family Proclamation, it became apparent to me that some leadership is very concerned that people will take this as a license or an excuse to do whatever they want. I would have wanted to celebrate this clause as permission to adapt our family division of roles based on such factors as interest and talent. Instead I was cautioned that this clause is talking about more extreme cases of death, disability, or … dismemberment. Being a career driven female did not seem to rise to the occasion of permitting “individual adaptation”. This makes me believe that priesthood leaders may only recognize sustained sexual and/or physical abuse (or adultery) as the legitimate exceptions to the rule. Would irreconcilable differences ever be a valid justification or is that just being a quitter?

  26. Every experience is different, every bishop is different. In the last ward I was in, the bishop encouraged one young wife to get the divorce she needed so she could get out of her terrible situation. She looked so much happier once she was out of that marriage.

  27. BillyPossum: In complete seriousness, where were you reading sarcasm? I did not intend this post to be sarcastic. I meant this post as an earnest plea of “please, Elder Holland, I love you, but please listen very closely to what your words will accidentally be interpreted as, so that we as a Church can work towards better rhetoric.”

  28. Maybe LDS leaders should just accept that generally people don’t get divorced for frivolous reasons, and then focus on figuring out how to better minister to them.

  29. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    The problem is that, after reading this back to himself before posting, Elder Holland (like Rich Harshaw) simply didn’t recognize the gaping holes in the logic, the toxic assumptions he was making, and the obvious limitations of Priesthood Leaders in addressing these issues. It’s like he simply hasn’t been paying attention to recent history and is unable to comprehend how the advice he is offering falls well short of what those in abusive relationships require. At best, this is tone deaf. In reality, this WILL make it more difficult for many women (and some men) to reconcile what is already a very difficult situation.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    Well articulated, Carolyn, thanks.

  31. While not as important, a lot of what you said also applies to when one spouse is so caught up in depression that they’re apathetic towards the survival of the marriage. Folsky advice of “just do this” only goes so far when the response from half of the relationship is “meh. Whatever.”
    Thanks for this.

  32. Complicatin the problem of “your priesthood leader will know” is the fact that God almost/never gives us revelation like a lightning bolt in a clear blue sky. He doesn’t answer the questions we don’t ask; He waits to be asked before giving answers. So, sure, it’s possible that Bishop X can pray and ask God, “is Brother Y abusing his wife?” and receive confirmation in the affirmative, but what happens if the bishop never thinks to ask God in the first place?

  33. Thank you, Carolyn, for writing this. This is exactly what I would have needed to hear when I was leaving my own abusive marriage. Also, Triggered Again, I feel you. There is a lot I would say about this topic as well, but it does feel very vulnerable. In my own experience, my Stake President, smilingly told me that he never counseled divorce (except in one case where the guy chased his family around the house with an ax.) He told me I needed to stay and he sent me and my abusive husband to an LDS social services counselor who listened with great empathy to my ex and then would turn to me and say, “Can’t you see he’s feeling judged. Can’t you be a bit more forgiving and patient with him?” I wanted to scream, “I have been forgiving and patient, I have forgiven him literally thousands of times. I have been kind and sweet and I’ve valiantly tried to pretend that there isn’t a problem, and to make it all better, and say the right things and do everything perfectly so that he won’t abuse me. My unending focus is on how I could be a better wife. For the first time ever I have finally scrapped together a little courage, enough to say, ‘No, the way you’re treating me is not okay,’ and now you want to take that away from me.” Instead, I just told him I would try harder (though by then, I was sure that my ex would kill me if I stayed with him.)

    I believe my stake president and that LDS counselor were good people who meant well. Unfortunately, neither seemed to understand that marriage counseling is not a good idea when one spouse is abusive because of the gas-lighting that both the abuser and the counselor can jointly perpetuate. Also, I wish that they understood that, often, it is the ‘sweet’ and docile women who are more likely to be sought out by abusers and who are more likely to put up with abuse in the first place, so telling them to stay and be sweeter is not what these women need to hear. I wish I had known then that I did not need permission from my priesthood leaders to get a divorce, but at the time, I though that their words on the subject represented God’s will in every respect. (I was young, and my parents had indoctrinated me to always submit my own will to priesthood authority.) Hopefully, the Church can start to train the lay leadership to better recognize the signs of abuse and how to better support those in abusive situations. This is a much more devastating issue than I sometimes think they realize.

  34. I hear more stories of bishops counseling a woman or man to get out of a marriage where one spouse stops believing than I have stories that have counseled women to get a divorce because of emotional and physical abuse. It is a messed-up sense of morality.

  35. Wilson, that’s super scary. Very sad.

  36. So many feelings. So many thoughts. Some deep. Some superficial. Most in between. Some siding with the article. Some siding against. A Facebook post can’t be all things to all people. Given his callings (and 60 years as an adult), Elder Holland has counseled (directly or one-degree removed) thousands of couples and has probably identified patterns and commonalities. But neither quantity nor age automatically qualifies a person to give sound marital counseling.


    I guess I’m left not wanting to offend anyone on this matter, as it’s very close to the heart for many frequenters of this blog. …though I will point out that the word ‘toxic’ appears waaaay too many times on this page – and in today’s speech in general. We need us a thesaurus.

  37. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I used “toxic” in my comment. I stand by the comment, but will gladly swap out the term for something else that conveys the idea that Elder Holland’s assumptions and advice (in this instance) have the potential to contaminate how the Church deals with abusive relationships and corrodes a woman’s ability to seek help from Priesthood Leaders. I’ll let you pull out the thesaurus and suggest alternatives.

  38. It is a big step forward that when general authorities comment about marital relationships, they now routinely acknowledge that divorce can be not only acceptable but necessary. Now it’s time to take another step. Elder Holland’s comment is entirely well-intentioned, but he probably has not realized something that many of us are just now learning. As Carolyn’s post explains so well, abusive marriages are not an exceptional case of healthy marriages. Abusive relationships are of a different kind, requiring different considerations in the language we use about them. Therefore, it doesn’t work well to give advice about healthy marriages and then tag it with a nod to the “exceptions.” When this fact dawns on Elder Holland and others who are as sensitive as he is, I suspect that their way of speaking about this will begin to change. I’m sure that writing like this piece by Carolyn will make a difference.

  39. Elder Holland also said the following at BYU in 2000:
    ““In a dating and courtship relationship, I would not have you spend five minutes with someone who belittles you, who is constantly critical of you, who is cruel at your expense and may even call it humor. Life is tough enough without having the person who is supposed to love you lead the assault on your self-esteem, your sense of dignity, your confidence, and your joy. In this person’s care you deserve to feel physically safe and emotionally secure.”

    I hope his advice about dating and courtship also extends to the marriage relationship.

    I have heard several times that general authorities give “general” advice. It is up to us to individually apply, adapt, or even reject certain advice that might not fit our circumstances. I know this is easier said than done in a “follow the brethren” culture.

  40. A complication: abuse has many forms, i.e. insensitivity, narcissism, and psychopathy as a partial spectrum. Insensitivity may be helped by becoming “woke.” Narcissism might be helped by intense counseling as a person may gain insight eventually. Psychopathy cannot be helped and should be fled. There may be other personality issues which can be addressed individually, like ADD, ADHD, and ASD, and any number of OCDs, not to mention schizophrenia and other disturbing mental states that might appear in the early or mid 20s during frontal cortex maturation. (A case for later marriage.) Then we have to cope with the fact that male sexuality is linked with the amygdala, the locus of aggression.

    Here we can dice E. Holland’s words more finely. The “legitimate” cases he cites are the ones above that can’t be fixed by any reasonable attention, particularly psychopathy. And psychopathy is not rare, like one marriage in 10 or 20 might be affected.

  41. The long term trouble I personally have experienced with my abusive, but thankfully ended, marriage is the anger I still feel toward all my priesthood leaders. I simple do not care what they say about anything. I would love to say I did not wish them evil, but sometimes I do wish them evil. This kind of trauma, where one priesthood leader actually blamed me, the victim, is not something I will ever truly overcome. Let us hope God hears our prayers for women to be granted the priesthood.

  42. My mom stayed in an abusive marriage for years. She wasn’t the victim, I was, but she stayed because it was a temple marriage. She personally received revelation that it was okay to leave (it was what she needed, I’m not commenting on anyone else’s experience). The bishop and most of the ward sided with my dad. So no, your priesthood leaders won’t know. Some will! My current bishop and I have talked about this. He would know. He would help. But it’s not up to them. They don’t get personal revelation FOR you.

  43. Please be aware that certain mental illnesses, such as bipolar and borderline, often include severe abuse of the spouse and children. Sometimes they are even murdered. This occurs even if the mentally ill person was born in the covenant, served a mission and married in the temple. The bishops and stake presidents and mission presidents and general authorities are not trained to recognize the symptoms. I can say from personal experience that spanned decades that they are also not inspired to recognize what is happening to the sufferer or to their family victims. President Holland is mistaken.

  44. Geoff - Aus says:

    You make the point that there has not been a talk where abuse is defined clearly. If there was we could discuss it in Elders quorum, and make it clear to abuser their behaviour was unacceptable.

  45. I found it very interesting that the divorce rate in Utah County, with its high active LDS population, so closely mirrors the rate of serious mental illness. Is there a correlation?

  46. When church leaders inadvertently trivialize women’s concerns, it should be called “G.A.slighting.”

  47. Leonard R says:

    I so appreciate your thoughtful, faithful words.

  48. Billy Possum says:


    Sorry for the late response. It appears that you modified the tone of your OP to remove the points that I remember reading as sarcastic (in particular: there was a reference to breaking your analysis down into “tiny steps” or something of the sort, and I recall that your use of Elder Holland’s name was so frequent at times as to appear patronizing).

    Whatever changes you made, and whether they were made in connection with your noted October 2 edit or otherwise, thank you for making them. I think your post will get read, if not by Elder Holland, then certainly by someone with whom he and other GAs might discuss this issue. That is how the needle moves.

  49. Thanks Billy — yes, with independent advice from a friend I did try to change words that she said read badly. Thanks for calling my attention to them as well.

  50. The complaint in the OP is frivolous. Elder Holland’s post was not about abuse. To repeat, the subject was not about abuse. Chances are Holland included the statement about abuse, in a post that otherwise has nothing to do with abuse, to obviate complaints, because if he hadn’t, someone would complain, incredulously, that Holland is naive, or tone-deaf, or insensitive about abuse situations. And this despite his emphatic, explicit condemnations elsewhere. So he reaffirms that abuse situations justify divorce, and still the complaints come in. Amazing. Elder Holland is on your side, Carolyn. Of all people, quit nipping at him.

    Is Holland, or any Church leader, supposed to give a full-throated, hand-holding, protracted condemnation of abuse anytime he or she speaks, even when the subject is not abuse? Good grief.

    If we can fault Elder Holland for anything here, perhaps his view of local priesthood leaders is higher than Carolyn’s, which I can understand given her one-time experience with an insanely out-of-line Bishop. I’ve never experience an interview anywhere near as crazy.

    Btw, although I want to add my own condemnation of the horrors of abuse – especially given that one of my dearest childhood friends and my own sister have suffered for years from the effects of physical and sexual abuse – I doubt it would prevent criticisms that I’m naive or insensitive any more than Elder Holland’s statement prevented Carolyn’s criticisms.

  51. In answer to Jiminy’s question, yes! I would certainly think Elder Holland would (and does!) condemn domestic abuse every time he brings it up.

    But that’s not the critique Carolyn offered here. She is reacting to a specific claim: that a woman’s priesthood leaders will know when she is in an abusive situation that makes her marriage untenable. This thread is full of women telling you that this has not been the rule, in their experience. Discounting each of those accounts as a “one-time experience” (weird outliers that you, a man, have never seen!) doesn’t cast you in a very good light.

  52. Kenzon, No, that wasn’t the question. Read it again.

    “Discounting each of those accounts as a “one-time experience” (weird outliers that you, a man, have never seen!) doesn’t cast you in a very good light.”

    Here comes the criticism of naivety, a particularly uninformed and sexist one. No, I did not “discount” the accounts you reference, as I didn’t comment on those accounts – all of which are terrible and disappointing. I commented on only one, Carolyn’s, who described it as a one-time experience, and not only did I *not* discount it, I said her bishop was “insanely out of line.” Please leave your strawmen at home.

    Carolyn has multiple criticisms here, not just one, and the whole OP, at least before changes, is an overblown shot at an ally.

  53. I promise you I do not have more than one bad experience with horrific Priesthood advice. I just have only one I have chosen to publicize here to date at BCC.

  54. Billy Possum says:

    In light of recent comments, let me clarify: as one who did offer a criticism of the OP, I don’t think Carolyn’s point or analysis are overblown or a “shot.” There was some sarcasm; she dialed it back; and it’s fine now (in addition to being just as incisive and important as it was all along).

    Jiminy is right, though, about strawmen. And how do we know Jiminy is a man? Or was it merely an inference by hasty generalization based on his position? Truth will out: it doesn’t need any ad hominem arguments (literally, in this case).

  55. Carolyn, I hope that you found satisfactory Holland’s emphatic clarification conference that forgiveness does not mean staying a toxic relationship or any abusive situation.

    Perhaps we can view this post in the light that sometimes a RS/priesthood leader might recognize an abusive situation when the victim doesn’t. Not at all that a victim needs leader approval.

  56. jpv: If that was his intended message, it could have been more clear. But I certainly have heard of stories when it was Church leaders who were the first to tell a victim “this is abuse, God wants you to be safe, and Christ does not command you to put up with it.” Peace and blessings be upon those leaders.

    Also, I wrote this before I saw your comment: https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/10/08/thanks-elder-holland/

  57. Very thoughtful expressed

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