Author Note: Whether you think the Book of Mormon is fiction, history or scripture, the story of Lehi’s sons has some interesting elements. The Church repeatedly states that it opposes abuse of all kinds. However, information about how to recognize patterns of abuse is pretty scarce. Fortunately, Laman and Lemuel are here to set an example of how to abuse a family member. Conveniently, their entire story takes place in the chapter before the Isaiah chapters, when everyone gives up on reading the Book of Mormon anyway. Let’s take a deep dive into the First Family of Mormonism, mingling scriptures with the perspective of modern social sciences about abuse. I’ll put a couple of books in the footnote if you want to dive deeper into the psychology of abusive relationships. 


When you’re in a bad relationship, whether you describe it as abusive, toxic, unhealthy or dysfunctional, one of the trickiest things to deal with is advice from well-meaning people who think you can just address the problem the same way you would in a healthy relationship. “Why don’t you just talk about it when things are calm?” someone will ask with the best of intentions. “Surely if he knew how you felt, he’d stop.”

The assumptions under that advice are: (1) the problem is that the victim isn’t communicating her feelings well enough; (2) the abuser cares about the victim’s feelings; and (3) the victim won’t be punished for making the abuser feel guilty about his behavior. There is a vast chasm between abusive relationships and healthy relationships. 

At some point, I realized that the difference between a good relationship with some problems, and an abusive relationship is what happens between the visibly bad episodes. In a good relationship with some problems, you can talk about problems. You’re basically equals and you respect the other person. In an abusive relationship, talking about problems frequently makes them worse because the abuser will punish the victim for speaking up. The abuser is in charge. You are not equals, not at all, not ever, not even when the abuser is being nice.

Laman and Lemuel physically abused Nephi. These weren’t typical brotherly fights in which Nephi gave as good as he got. Nephi is an abuse victim. What’s insightful about the story of this family is that it shows L&L’s consistently toxic attitudes that underlie the actual physical abuse. I’ll go through various episodes and point out the elements. I am not a mental health professional. I’ve researched these sorts of issues over many years trying to understand the dynamics in my own family. I prayed a lot of anguished prayers, asking Heavenly Father why there was so little guidance about dealing with abusive family dynamics from the Church, and in answer to that prayer, I read Nephi’s story with new insight.

The Beating

After the family travels a few days away from Jerusalem, Lehi sets up camp and sends his sons back to Jerusalem for the brass plates. The four brothers return to Jerusalem where they try and fail to buy the brass plates from Laban. The owner, Laban, sends people to kill them so he can steal all the items they brought to try and buy the brass plates. The four brothers hide in a cave and Laman and Lemuel start beating the younger two brothers, Sam and Nephi:

And it came to pass that Laman was angry with me [Nephi], and also with my father; and also was Lemuel, for he hearkened unto the words of Laman. Wherefore Laman and Lemuel did speak many hard words unto us, their younger brothers [Sam and Nephi], and they did smite us even with a rod. And it came to pass as they smote us with a rod, behold, an angel of the Lord came and stood before them, and he spake unto them, saying: Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod? Know ye not that the Lord hath chosen him to be a ruler over you, and this because of your iniquities? Behold ye shall go up to Jerusalem again, and the Lord will deliver Laban into your hands. And after the angel had spoken unto us, he departed. And after the angel had departed, Laman and Lemuel again began to murmur, saying: How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us? 1 Nephi 3:28-31.

The strangest part of this story is that an angel shows up to stop the beating. That never happens. How often do abused people, children even, pray to God for deliverance and nothing happens? Nephi gets an angel to defend him.

The ordinary part of this story is how the abuse plays out anyway. The four brothers have tried and failed to do something difficult. Rather than band together as a team to try again, Laman blows up in blame and anger. Sam and Nephi haven’t done anything wrong; they had an idea that didn’t work. Blame is typical in a bad relationship. When something goes wrong, the abuser will find someone to blame and it won’t matter whether or not the blame makes sense.

L&L spoke “hard words” and then physically beat Nephi and Sam with a stick. After the angel tells Laman and Lemuel to stop hitting their brothers, they stop. Divine intervention stopped the most visible aspect of this abusive situation. But it didn’t change the attitudes under the abuse. Abuse is an attitude that erupts into words and actions from time to time, but it is always dysfunctional even if the abuser is not hitting the victim at the moment. Laman and Lemuel stop beating their brothers, but the underlying relationship dynamic has not changed. L&L don’t apologize, and they’re still angry.

The Prisoner

Later, Lehi sends his four sons back to Jerusalem again. This time it is to persuade a family friend, Ishmael, to bring his family and join them on their journey. The four brothers persuade Ishmael and his family of daughters and a few sons to come with them. While the group is traveling back to Lehi’s camp, the second abusive episode erupts. 

The fight is about returning to Jerusalem. Laman and Lemuel want to abandon this crazy journey and go back to Jerusalem. This time they have more people on their side. Several members of Ishmael’s family agree with Laman. Nephi tries to persuade them to keep going (see 1 Nephi 7:6-15).

After Nephi’s speech, they (it appears to be more people than just Laman and Lemuel this time) are angry. They tie him up and threaten to leave him in the wilderness to be eaten by wild beasts. Nephi doesn’t say anyone hit him this time, though tying someone up is definitely physical violence (see 1 Nephi 7:16).

Nephi has another miraculous answer to his prayers. He prays and asks the Lord to give him strength to burst the bands that tie him. That works and Nephi frees himself. This miraculous intervention doesn’t impress the abusers. They are all set to attack him again when other people in the group intervene and talk them down (see 1 Nephi 7:19).

Remorse kicks in when others intervene. They stop trying to lay hands on Nephi again and plead with Nephi to forgive them. Nephi forgives them and tells them to pray for forgiveness from God. After the offenders have prayed for forgiveness, the group continues on their journey.

Laman may be the chief instigator of the attacks on Nephi, but in this story the patterns change a bit because more people are involved. Laman doesn’t hit Nephi; he wants the wild beasts to do the more violent work. Several people finally stand up to the group led by Laman. They apologize to Nephi. Laman did not apologize after the first episode, and I wonder if the apologies in this episode came from the other people involved. The text doesn’t say.

In contrast to abusers who keep their behavior a secret, Laman does not keep anything secret. He actively tries to recruit people to join him in hurting Nephi. It appears that the others feel bad about how far they went, once someone who is not Nephi points out their bad behavior. Frequently, an abusive relationship includes apologies. However, because the underlying abusive dynamics have not changed, the apology does not stop the abuse from happening again.

This episode shows both the importance and the helplessness of bystanders. The witnesses intervened to stop the abuse. Nephi couldn’t stop it on his own, and the abusers weren’t going to feel bad on their own. The witnesses had to speak up. Witnesses who speak out are important in identifying and condemning the abuse.

The helplessness is that the witnesses only stopped this one episode. Speaking out against abuse ends an episode, but it doesn’t change the underlying dynamic of the relationship.

A Non-Bad Interaction 

Abusive relationships are not all bad all the time. Even abusers have good days. If someone was horrible all the time, it would be easy to leave. A victim stays in a relationship because he hopes things are getting better. He hangs that hope on the good interactions. What the victim doesn’t see is that what he thinks is a good interaction is really just an interaction that wasn’t as bad as it usually is. 

By this point in the record, Nephi is dealing with the two brothers who usually lead the pack during abusive episodes (Laman and Lemuel), one brother who is usually on his side (Sam), and a couple of brothers-in-law whose names we never know. When Nephi refers to his brethren, we don’t know how many people he’s talking about, but I assume it means the group includes more than Laman and Lemuel, since he does continue to mention Laman by name when Laman instigates something.

Nephi has a conversation with his brothers that brings him “joy and great hopes” (1 Nephi 16:5). What happens to cause him such joy? Nephi speaks about spiritual things like obedience and repentance, even making pointed remarks about how “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard,” and exhorting them to keep the commandments of the Lord. Instead of trying to kill him, his brethren “humble themselves before the Lord” (1 Nephi 16:1-5). 

That’s it. That’s the joyful and hopeful experience. They don’t beat him or try to kill him when he explains some spiritual concepts and tells them to be obedient to the Lord. 

If you listen to someone in an abusive relationship, you’ll hear this type of story in which the victim has “joy and great hopes” because of something rather mundane. When the wife is explaining why she doesn’t leave her abusive husband, she’ll tell a story in which he once stayed calm and didn’t hurt her, holding that up as proof that he’s a good man. Listen to what he didn’t say, and you’ll see the abuse cycle is still intact. He didn’t apologize for his behavior outside of the abuse cycle; he didn’t acknowledge the effect of his behavior on her; he didn’t offer to get help to make permanent changes; he didn’t treat her with genuine respect and see her as an equal; he didn’t say she could hold him accountable for the way he treats her. No, what happened was they had a non-bad interaction. The victim vaults to “joy and great hopes” because the abuser acted normally for once.

It’s just the victim grasping at straws. If an abuser really was going to change, he would agree to be held accountable for his behavior. Instead, all he does is have an interaction that is so neutral that someone in an ordinary relationship wouldn’t even register it as good, but it’s the best the victim has to prove that things might get better.

The Blame and the Bow

Out in the wilderness, the men are using bows and arrows to kill animals for food. Nephi breaks his bow. Nephi records, “and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food” (1 Nephi 16:18, 21). But he also says that his brethren’s bows had lost their springs. It doesn’t appear that anyone was angry with the other men for having unusable bows. Only Nephi gets blamed for everyone’s hunger.

Blaming someone when you should be working together with them is an abusive dynamic. They are all going hungry when Nephi’s bow breaks, including Nephi. In an emotionally healthy relationship, people would provide comfort: “It wasn’t your fault! I know you feel bad about it too, but don’t worry we’re all in this together and we’ll figure out something.” That does not happen in an abusive relationship. The constant blame produces fear, isolation and loneliness. You alone carry the burden to make sure everything goes perfectly so you can’t get blamed.

Nephi makes a bow and finds food (see 1 Nephi 16:23). This story gets taught in Sunday School classes as an example of Nephi’s faithfulness and resourcefulness. And it is a story of his faith and resourcefulness. But it’s also a story of the burden he carries. No one even tries to help him. No one works together with him. He alone is responsible for fixing everything by being more faithful and more resourceful than anyone else. Being in an abusive relationship is profound loneliness on a level that people with healthy relationships do not comprehend. You are always alone.

Building the Ship – Ridicule

Nephi summarizes the next eight years in about four verses (see 1 Nephi 17:1-4). We don’t know about any specific interactions, but the next stories Nephi tells show that nothing in the relationship with Laman and his other brethren has changed in those eight years.

The family’s journey has brought them to the sea. It’s a beautiful place, but this isn’t the destination the Lord has in mind for them. They are to build a ship and sail across the ocean to the Promised Land. None of them know anything about sailing. Nephi has never built a ship before, but he’s gotten instructions from the Lord and starts to make tools. 

Already in this story, Nephi has recorded visions; they left their comfortable home in Jerusalem when the Lord told Lehi to leave. They’ve seen angels and heard the Lord’s voice. So let’s just conclude that Nephi saying the Lord told him to build a ship is not quite as unbelievable to the others in this group as it would sound to a modern reader.

Nephi’s brethren call him a fool and don’t want to work with him. Even given all the divine intervention they’ve seen, there is definitely some room to disagree with Nephi’s plan to send them to sea on a ship he is building based on revelation from the Lord rather than on any real-world experience.

The abusive element in this interaction is their glee about Nephi’s pain. “Now when they saw that I began to be sorrowful they were glad in their hearts, insomuch that they did rejoice over me” (1 Nephi 17:19).

People who are not in an abusive relationship will sometimes say that they would simply not tolerate abuse. They would stand up for themselves. What people in healthy relationships do not understand is the fear of humiliation and ridicule. Imagine how unhealthy a relationship must be for a brother to be gleeful and rejoicing because he made his younger brother sorrowful. Imagine a husband laughing when his wife cries in humiliation at something he has done. Imagine a father yelling at a child that he’ll ‘give them something to cry about’ while the child is already sobbing in terror of the father.

The reason it is so hard to stand up for yourself in an abusive relationship is that the abuser feeds on the pain they have caused. If you admit that he hurt you, then he wins. If you make yourself vulnerable by asking for an apology or respect, then he wins. If you are sad, then he wins. The abuser enjoys causing pain. 

Laman wins this episode; Nephi admits the ridicule made him sad.

Building the Ship – The Lord Intervenes

All the frustrations of the past eight years in the wilderness boil over at this point. Laman and the others unload all their frustrations on Nephi — the suffering and the physical hardship and their belief that this whole journey has been pointless. Nephi replies with a series of scriptural stories, starting with Moses leading the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. He testifies about how they should be faithful to the Lord. He reminds them that they have heard angels and seen miracles, but stops short of talking about how they treat him (see 1 Nephi 17:23-47).

After this heated argument, his brothers want to throw Nephi into the sea. Nephi calls on the power of God to save him. Again, the Lord gets involved and physically shocks the brethren. Nephi’s brothers acknowledge the power of the Lord: “We know of a surety that the Lord is with thee, for we know that it is the power of the Lord that has shaken us” (1 Nephi 17:55).

As in the other times the Lord has intervened, it stops the abusive episode without changing the abusive dynamic.

Building the Ship – The Good Times

After the Lord’s intervention, the other men in the family work with Nephi to build the ship. Once it’s finished, everyone can see “that the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (1 Nephi 18:4).

Building this ship undoubtedly took a period of time. Nephi does not record any other friction with his brothers while they build the ship. In fact, if someone saw the shipbuilding without seeing the abuse that preceded it, the observer might have thought that this was a really great family working together to do something difficult and a little bit crazy. 

In most abusive families, there are good times — the trip to Disneyland, the fun gift at Christmas, the time you thought Dad would hurt someone but he didn’t, the time your sister helped you or your brother said something not-mean. There are times that an observer would only see how well everything is going. If you try to talk to this observer about the abuse, he would likely think you were whining and blowing things out of proportion. After all, every family has some arguments, but look at how well this family works together! The good snapshots work to hide and minimize the abusive episodes. 

Episodes that are clearly abuse do not have to happen every day for the relationship to be abusive. Even when no abuse is happening, the relationship is still not healthy. 

You spot the rot when you try to talk out a problem. In a healthy relationship, both people can talk about stuff without fearing the other person’s reaction. The offender would admit what he did. He would take responsibility for it and apologize. The victim would feel heard and respected. He would forgive the offender. This is how problems in a healthy relationship are resolved. In an abusive relationship, the only thing that happens is the victim has to forgive. The victim does not talk out an abusive episode with the abuser because he is afraid that will set him off again. Instead, the victim just tries to be glad that nothing abusive is happening at the moment.

If an abuser does apologize, the apology is not focused on the victim’s feelings and healing the relationship. Instead, the apology will be focused entirely on the abuser, his remorse and his self-hatred, or perhaps on his rationalization for his behavior. You know you are listening to an abusive apology when the victim ends up comforting the abuser. Even the apology is focused on the abuser’s needs.

You can’t trust the snapshot. If you are in an abusive relationship, the existence of good snapshots does not mean that the abuse is minor or that it will not happen again.

Sailing Away

After they finish building the ship, everyone boards it for the journey. I remember sitting in a Sunday School class once, listening to the teacher speak about how much faith it must have taken to set sail on a ship you’d built yourself. I remember thinking how much faith it must have taken to let Laman and Lemuel get on the ship with you. Nephi doesn’t record any other problems with his brethren after they threatened to throw him into the sea. In fact, he says his brethren “humble[d] themselves again before the Lord” when they saw how well the ship turned out (1 Nephi 18:4).

Once they’re aboard the ship and a few days from land, Nephi records “my brethren and the sons of Ishmael” began to have a party (1 Nephi 18:9). It’s interesting he lists his brothers (Laman, Lemuel and Sam) separately from his brothers-in-law in this episode. We know exactly who is taking which role later on.

Nephi is afraid that their irreverence will displease the Lord, so he tries to put a damper on the party. Rather than just ignore him, Laman and Lemuel (named specifically) tie Nephi up and treat him “with much harshness” (1 Nephi 18:11). They leave him tied up for three days, despite others on the ship begging Laman and Lemuel to let him go. The people begging for mercy are their parents, Lehi and Sariah, whose age and grief nearly kill them, and Nephi’s wife and young children. In previous episodes of abuse, Laman and Lemuel allowed their hearts to be softened when witnesses intervened. Not this time. In previous episodes of abuse, Nephi got some divine intervention to stop things. Not this time.

A storm rages for three days. Nephi sees the work of God in the storm, threatening everyone on the ship with destruction. It is this fear of death that eventually compels Nephi’s ‘brethren’ (Laman and Lemuel are not named here) to free him. Nephi says his wrists and ankles “had swollen exceedingly” and “great was the soreness thereof” (1 Nephi 18:15). Once Nephi is free, the storm ceases and they get the ship back on course.

There is one element of the abusive cycle missing from this story that has been present in almost every other story. The people who hurt Nephi do not repent or ask for his forgiveness. Nephi says it was Laman and Lemuel who tied him up, but it was his brethren who loosed him. I interpret that to mean that the men who freed him were not Laman and Lemuel. Laman and Lemuel have escalated the abuse and can no longer be talked down by witnesses, nor do they express any remorse.

Nephi Grieves and Escapes

They arrive in the Promised Land and start working on food and shelter. Nephi records some prophecies and a few events. He doesn’t record any other interactions with his brothers. As Lehi ages, he leaves a blessing on his separate sons. Lehi throws his support entirely with Nephi, and warns his other sons that they might be “cut off and destroyed forever” unless they repent (2 Nephi 1:14-32). Nephi doesn’t record any reaction to this speech.

After Lehi dies, Nephi speaks to his brothers without recording what he says. Laman, Lemuel and the sons of Ishmael are angry with him because of what he says (see 2 Nephi 4:13-14). This disagreement leads right into the verses that are sometimes called the Psalm of Nephi because they are so emotional and poetic. 

Nephi pours out his fears, weaknesses, faith in God and despair in his own sinfulness. He starts talking about his enemies, begging the Lord for deliverance from them and pleading for escape (see 2 Nephi 4:16-35). At this point in his life, the only people Nephi knows anymore are his family. His enemies are his brothers and he isn’t calling them brothers anymore. He ends this plea by putting all his hope in God.

I’m going to guess that most victims in an abusive relationship who get out of the relationship have an episode like this. In my life, it looked like a sobbing breakdown involving a lot of prayer and journaling where I finally let myself grieve for my failure and accepted that there was no point in praying for reconciliation anymore. Nephi just wants to escape at this point; there isn’t a word in here about loving his enemies or trying again with them. Same, Nephi, same.

In the next chapter, Nephi says he is again being subjected to death threats. In previous episodes, the Lord has stopped the abuse. This time, the Lord tells Nephi to get out. Nephi takes everyone with him who will go with him and leaves (see 2 Nephi 5:1-7). He’s done.

A Few Observations About Victims

For an abuse survivor, Nephi is surprisingly healthy in his emotions and attitudes. The abuse Nephi suffered was straightforward and obvious, he wasn’t alone, the abuse wasn’t hidden and he never blamed himself for what was happening. In this, Nephi is fortunate because the abuse didn’t screw up his thinking.

Nephi isn’t dealing with any mind games. Laman and Lemuel’s behavior is wrong, and all the people important to Nephi know it. Nephi never excuses his brothers because they are having a bad day or because traveling in the wilderness is hard. Nephi never believes that if only he was a better brother his brothers would treat him decently. Their parents never blame the abuse on Nephi or suggest he’s being too sensitive. No one ever says, “Gee, Nephi, the problem here is that you’re so obnoxiously righteous that your brothers can’t stand it. Stop being so faithful and they’ll like you.” The abuse happens right out in the open where everyone can see for themselves what is happening; no one can tell Nephi he’s exaggerating or misinterpreting something. These episodes are not mutual fights in which Nephi is giving as good as he gets and everyone can see it.

The more the victim blames himself for the abuse, the more difficult the escape and recovery process. Nephi never blamed himself for what L&L did, and neither did anyone else. 

A Few Observations About Abusers

Nephi was the younger brother, but that was the only power imbalance in this relationship. He described himself as being “large in stature” (1 Nephi 2:16). He was a man; he was as big as his abusers; he had his parents’ full support; God frequently intervened to stop the abuse while it was happening — Nephi had every possible advantage an abuse victim could have and it never healed the relationship.

Abusers don’t change. An abuser may exhibit some temporary remorse and may even make promises. It’s temporary and superficial. A victim may actually be able to insist that the abuser change some of the worst behavior, but it won’t change the underlying abusive dynamic of the relationship. I know a woman whose husband really did stop hitting her. But he ramped up the verbal/emotional abuse and sexual selfishness. The relationship did not become healthy; the abusive patterns just became less obvious.

Abusers enjoy abusing. That’s why abusers don’t change; you’re asking them to give up something they find emotionally gratifying. When Laman and Lemuel got frustrated and angry at anything, they released that emotional pressure by hurting Nephi. Releasing negative emotional pressure feels relaxing. Abuse is an endorphin release for the abuser. They aren’t going to give that up. [Some abusers who are willing to do the hard work necessary for change are able to change – see the books I list below for a description of what that process looks like]

Abusers hate the victim. You can tell how someone feels about you by the way they treat you. I did not know this growing up; I thought you had to believe someone loved you no matter what he said or did. Laman and Lemuel rejoiced when they hurt Nephi. Even when they could be persuaded to stop the abusive episode and free Nephi, there isn’t a word about Laman and Lemuel telling Nephi they love and respect him as a brother. Never once do we get an indication that Laman and Lemuel cared about how Nephi felt or cared about how their behavior affected him. Treating someone with contempt and cruelty and blame are signs of hatred. The times of non-aggression just mean the abuser is not in a bad mood, not that the abuser loves the victim. The abuser may need the victim, but needing someone and loving someone are different things. The abuser may occasionally feel bad that the victim is so weak he can’t handle getting what he deserves, but pitying someone and respecting someone are different things.

Abusers are not capable of seeing the victim as a human being who is entitled to love and respect. There is no equality in the relationship. 

A Few Observations About Witnesses

The witnesses to the abuse in Nephi’s story had it easy. They could see for themselves what was going on. Laman was straightforward and open about trying to recruit others to his cause; he never tried to hide what he was doing. The physical abuse was clearly over the line of acceptable behavior. There was no moral ambiguity about what was happening and whether or not it was wrong. No one ever said, “Gee, Nephi, if you weren’t so righteous then maybe you wouldn’t annoy your brothers so much.” (I’ve heard that sentiment from Church members, actually. The non-abusive response to someone being “too righteous” is to go write a snippy blog post that the too-righteous person never even has to read, not to tie someone up and threaten to leave them to be eaten by wild animals. It’s entirely possible to be annoyed with someone and NOT abuse them.)

Abuse is rarely that clearcut. The witness may be in a difficult situation and have some tricky decisions to make about how to condemn the abuse and the abuser while supporting the victim. Nephi’s witnesses can teach a witness important lessons about how to respond to abuse.

The first lesson is to accept that the witness will not heal the relationship. The most that Nephi’s witnesses could do was speak up when something terrible was happening and stop the worst excesses. Nothing the witnesses said made any real change to the relationship between Laman and Nephi. You, as a witness, will not heal or change the abusive relationship. This is important to accept because a witness risks becoming an enabler if she tries to heal the relationship.

To illustrate how a witness becomes an enabler, let’s use an example of an abusive marriage. The wife is being abused by her husband and she confides in her sister. The sister doesn’t see the abuse because the husband is only abusive in private; she knows only what the wife tells her. The wife wants the abuse to stop. The sister tries to help. The effort is already doomed to failure because the sister’s connection is with the victim and the victim isn’t causing the abuse. The abuser is abusing because he enjoys doing it and feels entitled to continue. Nothing the victim says or does will change that once the patterns are set. 

It’s vanishingly unlikely that the abuser is going to have a confidant trying to fix the relationship because the abuser doesn’t believe there is anything wrong with the relationship.

The well-meaning sister is going to become an enabler if she tries to encourage and coach the wife to give her husband the benefit of the doubt and reinterpret his abusive behavior as aberrations rather than being part of a pattern. The wife is probably already willing to find excuses for her husband’s abusive outbursts and the sister will encourage this. The wife should look for the good in her husband, and always find a trigger for what set him off. He had a bad day at work, or he wasn’t feeling well, or he’s been under a lot of stress. None of these reasons justify abuse, but this process trains the victim to rationalize and minimize the abuse and believe that the abuser is a good man no matter how he treats her. 

The well-meaning sister will also encourage and praise the wife’s patience with her husband’s outbursts. She’s so loving and forgiving! If they’re Christian, this sort of enabling quickly becomes religious. Jesus Christ forgave the men who nailed him to the cross; the wife is just like Christ. Tolerating abuse becomes a sign of spiritual strength and the wife may develop a martyr complex. If the wife won’t consider leaving the relationship because no one else could possibly love and help the abusive husband, then you’ve got a victim martyr. Don’t encourage or praise martyrdom. It’s useless. The husband is never going to accept his victim’s love and help; he despises her.

The well-meaning sister may start to blame the wife. She must be doing something to set him off. The wife is already willing to take responsibility for the abuse in order to feel some sense of control about it. She’s willing to believe the lie that if she was a better wife, her husband would treat her better.

As a witness, don’t fall into the trap of becoming an enabler. 

An effective witness simply bears witness. Speak the truth that the abuse is wrong. This is the most helpful thing a witness can do for a victim who confides in her about the abuse. Be clear and don’t agree with any excuses the victim offers. “I don’t care if he had a bad day, it is always wrong to hit you.” Or if the abuse is verbal or emotional, be clear about that. “He should treat you with respect when there’s a problem. What he did was immature and cruel.” In this way, the witness helps the victim stay sane and keeps the responsibility where it belongs, which is with the abuser.

Then let it go. If the victim wants help to get out of the relationship, offer help and appropriate resources. Victims, don’t expect witnesses to rescue your relationship. No amount of intervention or lecturing is going to make your abuser change. You can’t change him; don’t expect anyone else to do that either.

If the witness talks to the abuser, do not offer the abuser a shred of understanding or compassion. The abuser already thinks his actions are totally justified and the victim is getting what she deserves. The abuser is arrogant enough that if the witness says something like, “I understand you were frustrated,” all the abuser will hear is the acknowledgment that his feelings are normal. He won’t hear the rest of the sentence in which the witness says that no level of frustration can justify his behavior.

Watch out for that trap. Nice witnesses try to identify with people who are doing something wrong in order to be more compassionate to wrongdoers. The fact that you can identify with someone’s feelings does not condone their behavior. Abusers do not see that distinction because their thinking is so screwed up. Once the witness says she understands how he feels, the abuser hears that the witness agrees that his actions were justified.

Witnesses have to be very clear that no level of frustration or stress excuses the way the abuser is treating the victim.

  • If the witness tries to see both sides of the situation, then she sides with the abuser. All the abuser needs is someone to say his feelings are rational and he can do the rest himself. 
  • If the witness encourages the victim to give the abuser a second chance, then she sides with the abuser. All the abuser needs is an endless string of second chances to solidify the patterns of abuse. 
  • If the witness is ‘deeply saddened’ by what is happening to both victim and abuser, then she sides with the abuser. The abuser loves the idea that he’s suffering too and he’s entitled to compassion and understanding while he continues to abuse his victim. 

Don’t be impartial. Don’t consider both sides of the story. Don’t be deeply saddened. Be angry on the victim’s behalf and be clear about whose side you’re on or you will stop being a witness and become the abuser’s assistant and enabler.


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that families can be together forever. It’s rather obsessive about insisting that life’s greatest joys come through family relationships. However, the only complete nuclear family (meaning the wife/mother has a name and speaks a few lines) in the Book of Mormon is Nephi’s family. It starts as abusive and ends in complete estrangement. This irony does not get much discussion.

Nephi’s story is instructive for anyone dealing with an abusive relationship. Nephi gave his abusers another chance every time his abusers apologized to him and repented before God. After the incident on the ship when they didn’t apologize or repent, Nephi quit trying. When God told him to leave, he left. The lesson is clear: victims do not have to stay in a bad relationship forever. Outside intervention won’t make lasting changes. Look at the abuser’s behavior. If he stops showing remorse (or has never shown remorse), it’s time to get out.

Books about abusive psychology:

Bancroft, Lundy. Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. (Berkeley Books 2003).

Engel, Beverly. The Emotionally Abusive Relationship. (John Wiley & Sons 2002). 

Spring, Janis A. How Can I Forgive You?: The Courage to Forgive; The Freedom Not To. (Harper Paperbacks 2005).


When a post is this long, do you even read it all?

Have you ever been in a dysfunctional relationship? Or tried to help someone who was?

Do you think the word ‘abuse’ is overused or watered down?

Do you think Nephi’s experiences can help people understand abuse dynamics?