A few years back, a family member, a Christian, had to divorce her husband. At first glance that sounds horrible, but did I mention that he physically beat her regularly, and emotionally abused both her and the children? Just in the past two days, my wife and I rescued a neighbor from a lengthy period of domestic violence including both physical and sexual abuse. The Western Church as a whole is very unhealthy in regards to how we deal with both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, so I’m going to share some of my own observations from walking out an almost ten year process alongside this family member. Domestic Violence is evil.
1) The Church is historically terrible when it comes to dealing with Domestic Violence (DV). Pastors can be some of the worst advice-givers in these situations, often putting the victim in significant danger by telling them they have to stay in the marriage. Depending on who you talk to, the victim should have stayed in the marriage and “made it work,” in spite of the physical and psychic harm to his or her person and to the children. After all, marriage is an unbreakable covenant, and to divorce for anything less than marital unfaithfulness, aka adultery, is adultery, right? Wrong. Consider that abuse of any kind is about as unfaithful as someone can get. This is not a demonstration of love, but of a need for power. The Bible says that we husbands are to love our wives and treat them just like Christ did the Church, laying His life down for her (Ephesians 5:25). Abuse is the opposite of that, absorbing the victim’s emotional energy like a soul-sucking vampire in order to feel empowered.
Christians often tell DV victims to just pray and hope that God continues to work on the spouse’s heart, in spite of the fact that the spouse’s heart is hardened and not very open to the life-changing power of God. Mind you, God is more than capable of transforming anyone’s heart, hard or not, but you can just as easily pray for him or her from a safe distance as you can while in the middle of abuse. Bible-thumping people into staying in a dangerous, even life-threatening situation is not the will of God as outlined in scripture, and if you are telling someone otherwise, you are in opposition to God; working as a pawn of Satan in this area. Religion is not a reason to remain in abuse. If anything, it is the holy empowerment to find freedom from it. Anyone who tells you otherwise has a religion you should have nothing to do with. Run from it.
I have some friends who I love dearly, but their “solution” to the problem was to occasionally remind us that God’s desire was to restore the marriage, and then they would cite all the situations they knew of where it happened for someone else. That’s wonderful and all, but when in the middle of dealing with the actual problem, “restoration” is the last thing on anyone’s mind. Safety and security are the starting point to a long road to recovery, and if God wants to restore somewhere in that process, He is well able to do so, but it’s not an appropriate focus, especially not when the victim is still being victimized. God will work out those details down the road if He so chooses.
2) Domestic violence of any kind, whether physical, mental, or sexual, is abuse. Period. It is not earned, welcomed, or deserved, and it is never the victim’s fault. An abuser gains inner power and well-being from the mistreatment of others. The behaviors of the attacker are not the fault of the victim, no matter how many times someone says otherwise. This is important because most likely the abuser has gradually brainwashed the victim into believing that the victim IS the one at fault for the abuse he or she receives.
3) Domestic violence can occur to either gender, by either gender. While yes, it is predominantly a male-attacker female-victim, that is NOT always the case. Don’t make assumptions, and don’t treat a male victim like he should have been strong enough to act differently. He’s a man after all, right? No, that is a societal message that has no basis in reality, much less in an abuse-scenario. Don’t kick a victim while he is down just to perpetuate an unhealthy social message.
4) DV can be deadly. If the victim doesn’t leave early on, it usually takes a long time for him or her to leave the relationship, and sometimes they never do. Sometimes, even if they leave, they go back into the abusive situation. I believe the statistic is that the average number of times for a victim to leave and then RETURN to the abuser is somewhere around seventeen times before they either leave for good or are killed. A portion of all DV encounters WILL end in the death of the victim.
I will say this to anyone and everyone who is in an abusive situation, whether you are thinking about leaving or not. First, do it and get yourself and your family safe. You may not be dead now, but there’s always another day, another opportunity for violence to escalate, and you never know when the tipping point will come. It might have started with emotional abuse only, but eventually it will progress, and one day you might not be around to tell the tale. It took my family member narrowly escaping being strangled to death before they got the courage up to leave.
5) DV victimization is a VERY big deal not just for the present, but for the future. Consider that when children are involved, this sets up an unhealthy cycle for them in the future, predisposing them to either be the victim again as an adult, or an attacker of someone else. The abused rejoin the cycle as either abused or abuser, and the cycle continues for yet another generation. One of the most important things a family member or friend can do is to be a safe and significant role model in that child’s life to help break the cycle of abuse.
6) At the same time the abuse is not the victim’s fault, staying in the relationship IS his or her fault. Keep in mind that while I say this, it is a sort of double-edged sword and/or there are two sides to the situation, so bear with me. I will go into signs of abuse in a bit, which includes loss of resources to escape, which is part of why people stay—they don’t feel they have a way out. Also, if children are involved the abuser will frequently threaten to take the children away forever via full custody and/or kidnap, and/or harm the children in some way if the victim does not comply. This fear is crippling in many cases, which is a major reason why the victim does not leave, and this is something that outside observers need to understand. This is one side of the why-they-stayed blame issue.
On the other hand, it is entirely normal if family members and friends are angry as to why he or she stayed in the abuse. I know I have felt this way. At the end of the day, the abuse is not the victim’s fault, but remaining in the relationship is, and no amount of justifying or explaining the reasons for staying absolves the victim of this key responsibility, especially if children are involved. This is an unpopular thing to say, especially in circles dealing with therapy and recovery, because, referring back to my first point about the abuse not being the victim’s fault, this kind of statement tends to put blame back on the victim.
Here’s where things get hairy though. The abuse isn’t the victim’s fault, but no one else can make them leave either. In my situation, my wife and I provided ongoing support to this individual, to the point that we eventually provided secret emergency cash and a burner phone to help ensure they were able to get out safely, and eventually we did pick the kids up at midnight one night when the cops were called, and from there everything went gradually uphill. The kicker is that we had the children staying with us every other weekend anyway, so at any point in time the individual could have left, knowing they were safe with us. This was a point of significant anger and frustration for me, not because the abuse was the victim’s fault and not because they weren’t already being brainwashed into what is called “learned helplessness”, because they were. It was that we provided opportunity time and time again, even when we didn’t quite recognize the signs, and yet it took over five years to go from the start of the abuse to the time this individual left, having produced multiple children in the process—children whom I love dearly, and who would not have become co-victims of the abuse if the main victim had left sooner.
As someone who was involved in the rescue process, and also was in family relationships with both the victim and abuser, it is important to recognize that the victim isn’t the only one affected by the abuse. The domestic violence happening elsewhere in the family negatively altered entire YEARS of my life. Even though I wasn’t the victim, I still had to deal with the abuser on an ongoing basis, and yes, even though much of that time I didn’t know the abuse was happening, all of the common relational problems surrounding the situation were both noticeable and highly problematic, and the resulting years of climbing out of the issue after the fact have been ongoing. My wife and I have probably fought more in our marriage over that relationship and resulting negatives from it than all of our other marriage squabbles combined. The direct victim ends up only being the main victim—everyone else pays a price too.
7) After leaving the abuser, the recovery process begins. This is a long process, and needs to be treated as such. Breaking the silence is the first step to recovery, because the abuser made sure to keep the victim silent about the abuse. He or she must be able to talk about it in a safe place. This is where the “not the victim’s fault” piece comes in again. If you are angry as to why they stayed, talk to someone else about it in the short term. You can discuss it with the victim later, as they get through some of their own process and de-programming from victimization. If you can continue to be a safe place, you will help the victim heal much faster than if you toss blame at them left and right, even if some of it is warranted.
Another important key in the recovery process is staying out of other dating and/or marriage relationships. I have seen more than one situation where the victim gets out of one situation only to end up in another, similar situation. Why? Because their same inner patterns that helped attract the abuser the first time are still in play. Unless significant inner healing occurs, the victim will simply attract a second abuser.
This attraction issue is very real because it is part of how the laws of the universe were set up. Another more “Christian” term for it is sowing and reaping, but it involves releasing our hopes, dreams, fears, doubts, and judgments into the cosmos. In the same way that we are co-creators with God, we co-create our reality through sowing and reaping. When I say we attract something, this is literally what happens. Mind you, we are not the only ones doing the attracting—everyone is. An abuser attracts a victim just as much as most victims attract an abuser. This is not always the case, but it is probably true for the majority of situations. It is unconscious, however, on the part of the victim, and thus not something he or she knew to avoid. This is why it is so important to go through inner healing to change those inner messages and beliefs and resolve inner wounds. Otherwise, the risk of entering a new abuse-situation is very high. I watched what happened to my family member after they remarried shortly after the divorce was finalized, and I can say that about 95% of the situation remained the same with the new spouse, minus the physical abuse. If you don’t take time to heal, you will pay the price yet again. Unfortunately, the rest of the family gets to go along for the ride, so whether we want to be involved or not, we often get dragged in yet again. Please, if you are a victim of domestic violence or any other form of abuse, do yourself, your children, and the rest of your family and friends a favor. Take time to heal, and take a long time to heal before getting into a new relationship. I suggest a minimum of 2-3 years before even considering the possibility of seeing someone new.
8) Some basic signs of abuse:
The abuser typically isolates the victim from family and friends, oftentimes also separating them from money and any other assets that might aide in their escape. If you are watching a family member slowly draw inward, makes excuses for why their cell phone never works, doesn’t have any money ever, and things just feel sketchy, this may be why. It is a common pattern, and is specifically done this way to keep the victim powerless. He or she may also not like to go swimming in the summer, wear sleeveless shirts, or do anything else that causes skin to be exposed. Unless he or she is taking a medication that causes skin sensitivity to sunlight, it can be a sign of being beaten, and the clothing is to hide the bruises.
If a child starts getting more secretive about their body, acting strangely, begins getting regular urinary tract infections, or starts just having more “family secrets” in general, these are all potential signs of abuse, and should alert you to pay more attention and to start looking for corroborating signs. I witnessed signs of abuse with the kids involved for a good year or two before I realized what they were. It was only as we were already getting the kids to safety that some of the strange behaviors started to make sense and it all clicked. As a nurse I have been taught to report abuse when I see it, but it can be easier to spot it at work when I have the “nurse-hat” on than in an outside situation. It is easy to read about signs of abuse, but much harder to see them in your own surroundings.
This is a longer post than normal, but the information I have shared here is of utmost importance. The Church of Jesus Christ cannot sit back and watch idly as our family, friends, and even other church members go through abuse without getting involved. Often the victims won’t want your involvement, but that doesn’t matter. You may save someone’s life by speaking up. And if your version of “speaking up” is to tell the victim to remain a victim, then you are part of the problem. Matthew 18:6 and Luke 17:2 both say, spoken by Jesus himself, that it is better to drown yourself than it is to drag a child down into a bad situation. I suggest that if we were to continue with Jesus’ analogy, encouraging someone to stay in an abusive marriage, especially when kids are involved, is a self-drownable offense. While I am not suggesting anyone go drown themselves (really, don’t), just don’t be that person Jesus was talking about. When in doubt, just be like Jesus—he was always the solution, never a contributor to the problem.
If you are being abused or suspect someone else is a victim of domestic violence, here are some resources you can turn to:
The National Domestic Violence Hotline:
1-800-787-3224 (TTY for Deaf/hard of hearing)
The National Sexual Assault Hotline
Hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673)
Online chat hotline: https://hotline.rainn.org/online/terms-of-service.jsp
To learn more about the hotlines: https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline
Volunteers of America: Oregon
(If you aren’t from Oregon, this group should still be able to refer you to somewhere that can help you better)
Finally, there is always 9-1-1 or the phone number to your local police department. I encourage and even implore you to speak up. Break The Silence.