Tag Archives: blaming victims

Why Nobody Believes the Victim

How Churches Unwittingly Promote Domestic Abuse

The other day I sat down with a precious daughter of the King and listened to her story. As survivor of domestic violence and advocate for victims, I almost knew the ending of the story before she got half way through, because I’ve heard similar accounts so many times. Once again, I was grieved to hear that another church had turned its back on a faithful member, and embraced the abuser. Once again, I saw the hurt and bewilderment that comes from being first abused by the one who promised to love and cherish till death, and then suspected or even blamed by the church entrusted with the care of her soul.

I’ve worked with victims of domestic violence for nearly 20 years, and in all this time a several common patterns have emerged, but the most egregious is that when they finally get up enough courage to reach out to their churches for help, the overwhelming majority of them are not believed. Pastors have come straight out and told me they believed the victims were making up lies in order to deliberately destroy their husbands, or others have said that that it’s nearly impossible to know who’s telling the truth in such cases.  Several times, pastors and church counselors indicated that my judgment in advocating for victims was certainly clouded by my own history of abuse. In one case, I prayed that God would not allow me to be fooled. I went back and interviewed 17 people who had worked with or knew the couple in question, and the only evidence of lies I could find were those told by the abuser, yet the church continued to believe his story rather than hers.

Why in this world is this such a problem? As I’ve continued to ponder this question, I come up with several possible answers.

  1. “Studies indicate that around 80% of those who have experienced domestic abuse suffer from PTSD.” * As a result, victims can seem irrational, angry and unstable. Some may have resorted to substance abuse to numb the impacts of the trauma. People helpers who do not understand trauma might conclude that her instability means she is feigning or perhaps even the causing the problem.
  2. Victims are taught to cover up and hide the abuse, and most do not come forward until the pain becomes unbearable. Being in an abusive relationship can be a bit like being in a cult. Victims are conditioned to protect and make the abuser look good to the outside world. Many times they’ve done such a good job that people naturally doubt their stories.
  3. Victims may not have recognized the abuse themselves. In my work with hundreds of abuse victims over the past two decades, I’ve found that the vast majority do not see their spouses as abusive until many years into the marriage. Since domestic abuse is progressive over time, it usually has to accelerate to an intolerable level before they are willing to call the treatment they’ve received abusive. When they finally come forward, counselors and pastors may think the sudden charges of abuse came out of nowhere.
  4. Abusers can be the nicest folks you’ll ever meet! (At least in public they are). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shocked to find that someone I admired and respected within the church turned out to be abusive. One of the common traits of an abusive person is the Jekyll/Hyde syndrome. They are often charming and charismatic in public, but cruel and demanding in the privacy of their own homes. Since they may seem more put together and stable, it is easy to assume that the anxious wife is the main source of the problem. Most victims of abuse struggle with complex post traumatic stress, and some may even use substances to numb the pain of their lives. Issues like this can make things even more confusing for people helpers.
  5. Abusers work very hard at discrediting their victims. Over the years I have seen abusers spread deliberate lies about their spouses being unfaithful, mentally unstable, unfit parents and so on. We call it a smear campaign. Once a man a man came up to me and indicated how glad he was that his wife was taking one of my classes at church. He said “Maybe you can help her,” indicating that she was deeply troubled. Months later, she came to me in tears about the way she was being treated at home. However, because this man was a leader in the church and because of his earlier conversation with me, I found myself doubting her story. She did seem frazzled and unstable. It was only my training in domestic violence that enabled me to keep an open mind, and refrain from making her feel foolish for coming forward. The interesting thing is that she wasn’t even sure of what to make of what was happening in her home. She didn’t really come to accuse him; she came to ask me if her perspective was wrong, and if she was overreacting to his treatment.
  6. Misplaced Biblical Doctrines on Male Headship. Although I tried to deny its existence for years, I have become painfully aware that many non-abusive Christian men hold beliefs that encourage abuse. I have seen pastors take the side of abusers whose biggest complaint was that their wives were not being submissive. On more than one occasion I have heard church leaders discuss church discipline against women for being “unsubmissive,” yet not once have I heard of a man being disciplined for failing to love his wife as Christ loved the church. Experts in domestic violence are clear that a sense of entitlement is a foundational element among those who perpetrate violence at home, and harsh interpretations of biblical passages on male headship can serve to support that sense of entitlement. The Greek term for submission in the New Testament, hupotassō, indicates yielding for the sake of order. Even more conservative scholars recognize that it is not something that should be forced. Yet, churches often unwittingly foster abuse when they attempt to force something that was intended be voluntary.
  7. The Belief that Domestic Violence is Provoked. Even when victims have sufficient evidence to prove abuse, many counselors and pastors operate under the faulty assumption that they must have done something to set their abusers off, or that the violence was mutual. While there are some victims who do play into the violence, the majority I have known have done everything in their power to avoid it. They describe it as “walking on eggshells.” The sad part is that they can never predict what might set it off. For one woman, leaving a cup in the sink caused her husband to flip out, for another a misplaced hairbrush led to destruction that looked like a war zone in her home. It takes very little to provoke an abuser, and victims can never do enough to prevent the violence. There is never an excuse for domestic violence, and counsel that questions how the victim might have provoked the abuse is not only counterproductive, it serves to enable the abuser.

In my experience, the factors above explain the main reasons nobody seems to believe the victim. Of course, I know saying they’re never believed can’t possibly be true, but it sure seems to be that way far more often than not. Sure, there are false accusations in the world, but they are the vast minority of cases. Research shows that an overwhelming majority* of abuse accusations can be substantiated, yet in all my years of dealing with domestic violence victims, nearly all were doubted or even blamed for their marital problems when they reached out for help.  Sadly, even in cases where the truth of the abuse came out beyond dispute, the bulk of the burden was placed on the victims to improve the situation. Many were told to do more to make their husbands happy—to submit, have more sex, read their bibles or pray. Unfortunately, such advice only serves to promote an abuser’s sense of entitlement, and encourage cycle of abuse.

God’s heart is for those who are oppressed and maligned, and he hates it when justice is perverted in his name. “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow” (Is. 1:17). Yet, too often those who claim his name are unwittingly doing the exact opposite. I am not writing this in order to condemn. I certainly understand how easy it is to unintentionally promote wrong for “righteousness” sake. For years, my own convictions on marital submission and divorce made me a poor friend to those who divorced as a result of abuse. I was so opposed to divorce that I encouraged them to stay in situations that were clearly destructive. My beliefs also served to ensure the eventual failure of my own marriage. I thought I had to submit to any and everything my husband demanded. In the end, my strict beliefs only served to promote his sin, and the abuse worsened over time as I gave in to it.

The only way to overcome abuse is to, first of all, admit the truth. That requires believing it when it’s presented to you. Being able to recognize the truth often requires specific training on the dynamics of abuse. There are well-established typical patterns common to most cases.Those inexperienced in these dynamics should reach out to experts in domestic abuse who can help determine the best course of action to take. A trained advocate can meet with the wife to determine and confirm abusive patterns. An effective response will place responsibility for the abuse on the oppressor and not make the victim responsible for the destruction in the marriage. It all starts by listening and being open to believe the oppressed who come to you for help. My prayer for our churches is that we will open our eyes to the epidemic of domestic violence in our midst, and learn to be the solution rather than part of the problem.

* See the Called to Peace Companion Workbook “Lesson 4” by Joy Forrest.

**Studies I’ve read indicate false claims makeup only about 3-5% of all claims. This is very consistent with my experience working at a DV program.

The Worst Kind of Counselor

Recently, I began reading the book of Job in my quiet time. I love so much about this book, but I always find myself wanting to fast forward all the well-meaning advice from Job’s friends.  Their counsel seems all too familiar to one who has lived through, and helped others escape, the horrors of domestic violence. It is so easy for one who has never suffered intensely to come up with godly sounding advice, and even to misapply perfectly good scripture in a way that implies the victim surely must have done something to bring on the trouble.

In his book Domestic Abuse, pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles mentioned his experience of being invited to speak to a group of Christian women in a support group for domestic violence survivors. The thing that stood out to Chris as he listened to these ladies share their experiences was that nearly everyone of them had reached out to their churches for help after enduring years of controlling and violent behavior, and the result in the majority of cases was that the church counsel had eventually turned against them. 

This common scenario usually goes something like this. A woman musters up the courage to reach out to her pastor for help. Sometimes he believes her (although he thinks she’s probably exaggerating the severity), but often he doubts her story. After all, he knows her husband to be a godly man. He then goes to the husband to ask about his wife’s allegations. The abuser explains to the pastor just how absurd that is. He indicates that has tried to encourage his wife, but she is clearly unstable and responds to his support with disrespect.

Afterwards, this man goes home and scolds or threatens his wife for talking to the pastor. In some cases, the result might be physical harm. When the couple goes back to the pastor later for counseling, the wife is strangely silent or perhaps too emotional. When the pastor asks her to voice her concerns, she gives a briefer, sanitized version of her earlier account, or defers to her husband. The pastor then gives some advice about how they can improve their marriage, assigns some helpful reading, and closes with a prayer. The husband approves, thanks him for his time and assures him they will work on things. The wife leaves feeling completely dejected. Even though she is clearly a victim behind closed doors, the counseling session put equal or even more of the burden on her to change the situation. Hopelessness begins to set in. Like Job she knows that the counsel they received completely missed the heart of the problem.

Over the course of time, counsel like this ends up harming rather than helping to restore abusive marriages. No matter how much scripture is quoted or how much this wife works on herself, things will likely go from bad to worse. That is because the true problem is hidden. In Job’s case, nobody involved knew the interchange that had occurred between Satan and God. His friends, being good students of wisdom, naturally assumed that Job must bear some of the responsibility. Even though there was truth in their words, they did not see the whole picture, and unfairly accused him. In the end, God was angered with their charges against Job.

In my 18 years of working with abuse victims, I have witnessed modern versions of Job’s counselors multiple times. In fact, I’ve been one myself. Before my marriage failed, I operated under the faulty assumption that marriages failed because people didn’t try hard enough. When two of my own family members experienced divorce because of abuse, I secretly judged them in my heart. Surely, they could have done something to make it work. I was far more concerned for their marriages than their well-being. In the end, I applied the same sort of counsel to myself, and ended up working on my marriage until I nearly lost my life. One day as I was crying out to God and studying his Word, I realized he cared more about me that that that broken covenant. I understood that there’s no way one person can make a marriage work if the other isn’t willing. Like the Pharisees, I had elevated an institution over the people it was intended to bless. While they missed the point about the Sabbath, I missed it about marriage. I failed to understand the true source of the problem, and consequently did more harm than good.

The church is filled with well-intentioned counselors who are doing the same thing to victims of abuse. Women in these situations have come to me baffled and hurt when the tables have turned on them. Rather than getting help they got blamed. I fully understand why God aimed his wrath at Job’s friends. They assumed too much, blamed too quickly, and refused to believe Job’s pleas of innocence- even when their previous interactions with him supported his claims. They even used their knowledge of God against Job. Rather than trying to understand the whole story, they arrogantly assumed and placed the blame where it did not belong. They were in a position to love and support, but instead added insult to injury, and as a result became the worst kind of counselors.