Tag Archives: domestic violence

How Can I Ever Forgive Myself?

“How can I ever forgive myself?” It’s a question I’ve heard many times in my years of counseling. In fact, I get it! I know very well how it is to be plagued with guilt and remorse over a bad decision. When I finally broke free from a 23 year abusive relationship, I lived with regret on a daily basis. I couldn’t believe I had been stupid enough to believe the lies  that had kept me bound up for so long, and couldn’t believe how I had foolishly disregarded the harmful impact on my children. As much as I tried to tell myself that I did the best I could at the time, I was overwhelmed with remorse. The fact that I was still living with the consequences of my failures seemed to make it even harder to let myself off the hook.

As with the many other struggles I faced as a survivor of abuse, I went to scripture to find the answer to overcoming the guilt and shame I carried. First of all, I found nothing there that spoke to a need to forgive myself. The Bible urges us to forgive one another, and to receive God’s forgiveness, but never once does it tell us to forgive ourselves. Rather, it reminds us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It also lets us know that if we confess our sin He is faithful to forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). My study of scripture led me to the conclusion that rather than focusing on myself, I needed to focus on His finished work on the cross. I needed to accept what He had done for me– anything less would be the equivalent of saying His work on the cross was not effective for my sin. It was also choosing to walk in condemnation even though He had set me free from it.

Although I finally realized I had no right to continue to condemn myself, I was still overwhelmed with sorrow about the consequences of my choices earlier in life. For many years after I left the abuse, I continued to watch my children struggle as a result of their tumultuous upbringing– and even my own failures as a parent. Over time, I finally learned to establish boundaries with them, but it seemed to be too little too late. In the long run, all I could do was surrender them to His loving hands. All my fear-motivated attempts to control them seemed to push them further away. One day as I was crying out to God about it, I sensed in my spirit that He was not done with them yet, and that He was even sovereign over my mistakes and failures. I realized that just as He was using my pain and suffering for His good purposes, He could do the same with my kids. It took many years to see things turn around, but as I surrendered them to His loving hands He worked in amazing ways.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with the weight of guilt from your past, there are two truths that will set you free –if you apply them. First, you must choose to believe God’s proclamation that you have been set free from condemnation by Jesus’ finished work on the cross. He took the penalty for all your failures, and took the shame on Himself. If you have received Him, you are free from sin, guilt and condemnation. Telling yourself otherwise is to believe the lie that His sacrifice was not good enough. Second, you must trust God’s sovereignty. This means that He will somehow use the pain and sorrow you experienced for His good purposes (Rom. 8:28). Believing He is sovereign is worthless if you do not believe He is good, so if you doubt His goodness you must start by remedying that problem. Scripture is filled with proclamations of His lovingkindness, and suffering does not diminish His character!

He specializes in turning ashes into beauty (Is. 61:3). As you choose to embrace Him in your pain you will experience the reality of this truth. Full surrender to our good God will never disappoint, but holding on shame and self-condemnation will keep you in bondage. Freedom is a choice, and you will find it as you shift your focus from yourself (and your mistakes) to His abundantly sufficient grace.

Deadly Counseling

A few weeks ago I posted a simple question to survivors of domestic violence in a few online forums. The question was, ” Could you share examples of bad counsel you’ve received from churches and counselors?” In less than an hour I had over 50 responses. Below are just some the answers I received.

  • Pray more, have more sex, ask God to show you what you’re doing to make him so angry.
  • “Read this book on how to be a better wife.” “Just stop pushing his buttons; you know what they are.”
  • You need to treat your husband like he has special needs. Step back from things so you can give him your full attention.
  • “He never meant you any harm. Just trust God- don’t fight for anything in the divorce settlement. You are bitter- you need to forgive him.
  • ” Well, I don’t think he was TRYING to kill you all.”
  • “You need to work on being more submissive.”
  • “You married him for better or for worse.”
  • ” Try doing things for him, pay more attention to him, be willing to sacrifice to make him happy.” They didn’t realize that trying to keep him happy was ALL that I was doing. Nothing for myself. And still, the abuse continued.
  • I was given a book on respecting my spouse. It was perfect ammunition for my abuser.
  • It doesn’t matter if he kills you– Jesus was killed too and you’ll go to Heaven too.”
  • “Love covers a multitude of sins”; “Forgive and forget”; YOU sin too.”
  • “It’s an anger issue– if there’s a fire, you can either throw a bucket of water on it or a can of petrol/gasoline.”
  • “Let God handle him; suffer for Jesus.”
  • “You are definitely suffering….we need to help you learn how to suffer well.”
  • “Keep telling yourself “the glass is half-full”.
  • “Forgive him and reconcile, he didn’t mean to hit you.”
  • “Just have more sex with your husband and everything in your marriage will be fixed.”
  • “There are only two biblically sanctioned reasons for divorce so you can’t leave and be in God’s will.”

I wish I could say that counsel like this is the exception, but in my 20 years of working with Christian victims of domestic abuse it has been the rule. Victims are dismissed, told to minimize the severity of what happened, or to try to change their abusers’ behavior by placating them. But it doesn’t work! One dear lady wrote the following:

Honestly, I think the most damaging thing is that pastors place ALL the responsibility on the wife’s shoulders to do things to “change him.” It never works. What’s really needed is swift and strong action against him- if just one person had looked at my ex and said “You are NOT going to treat her this way or there will be consequences” and then did exactly that—he wouldn’t have continued, then and now. His arrogance was fed in my former church—he still attends because it’s safe for him. He’s still abusive, and unrepentant.

This statement is loaded with truth. Studies show that abusers do not spontaneously change without strong intervention. In fact, every survivor I’ve ever met told me that the more they tried to appease their abusers, the worse things got. I know it was true for me when I was in it. The few times I’ve seen lasting reconciliation after domestic abuse, there was a long period of separation with lots of individual counseling and accountability for the abuser. Counsel that puts the burden of change on the victim not only kills any chance of overcoming abuse, but it could also get someone killed. At an advocacy training I attended this past summer, one of the other advocates shared a story that happened in her hometown. A local pastor told a victim in his congregation that she had to reconcile with her abusive husband, and shortly after her return her husband killed her. Why are counselors and pastors willing to take such risks with their counsel?

I have to conclude that most just lack the knowledge to provide effective intervention, because they operate under several faulty assumptions. 1) They believe that abuse is provoked or that it’s just the result of heated tempers on the part of both parties– rather than a pattern of coercive control on the part of the abusive partner. 2) They believe domestic violence is a marital problem– rather than the responsibility of the one choosing the violence. 3) They don’t consider a destructive relationship abusive unless there is physical abuse– even though domestic violence experts have identified a pattern of “nonphysical” behaviors that can clearly indicate lethality. None of these flawed conclusions are grounded in truth or empirical evidence, but are unfounded notions based on outward appearances.

The truth is that abusive people usually have two personas– one that is seen in public and another that is only seen in private. Abusers are very often charming and likable to outsiders, but cruel and demanding at home. Sadly they are able to instill so much fear in their victims that they help hide the truth. In fact, often they hide it so well that when they come forward people automatically doubt their stories. It is difficult to discern the truth without specific training in the dynamics of abuse.

Victims may also fear telling the truth about what goes on at home to their religious leaders because of their beliefs. Many times pastors and Christian counselors make marriage the priority in their counseling, rather than the safety and welfare of victims and their children. It seems the modern church has learned to elevate marriage over people, even as the religious leaders in Jesus’ time elevated the Sabbath. In our zeal we forget that marriage was made for people and not people for marriage, as Jesus reminded the Pharisees about the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).

Recently I heard an ultimate example of such religious zeal when I spoke to a dear woman who fled to a local shelter for safety after her husband brutally attacked her. The shelter did a lethality assessment, and she was told the chances of her husband killing her was very high. Less than six months out, her church is telling her that she must reconcile with her husband, even though there have been no signs of true repentance or heart change. They’re focusing their counsel with her on how to stop provoking him.  Anyone who understands the dynamics of domestic abuse understands that domestic abuse is an oppression problem– it is not provoked. I’ve tried to help this dear woman know that the counseling she is receiving from her church does not reflect God’s heart, but she continues to follow it. All I can do is pray that she will break free before their foolish and deadly counsel does irreparable harm.*

Won’t you join me in prayer for her and the thousands of victims who receive this sort of counsel each year? Better yet, join me in raising your voices to help increase awareness by sharing this post.

* Update February 2020:The situation finally became more intolerable for this woman and a serious crisis ended up leading her to separate from her husband again. She has moved to another church that has a better grasp on domestic abuse, and seems to be well on her way to healing.

Raising our Voices Against Abuse

Twenty two years ago domestic violence drove my children and me out of our home. We got out with only the clothes on our backs and bounced from one friend’s house to another, as my husband went on the warpath threatening everyone who tried to help. When I called the police, they reluctantly went over to the house and “tried to calm him down,” but told me there was nothing they could do to stop him from destroying the antiques and other precious items I had inherited from my grandmother. They explained that once I married, my property became his, and he could do whatever he wanted with it.

Since he could not find us, my husband’s rage increased. He began chopping up and burning all the wooden antique furniture in the house. He also bagged up all my personal belongings and carried them to the town dump, making sure to ruin my most expensive clothes by pouring ink all over them. Several hours each day he was on the phone relaying threats against me to friends and family members. He also went to great lengths to convince them I was to blame for everything that was happening. After his own father called to tell me he was afraid for my life, I called the police again. I believed if he found us, I would be killed. The police asked me if he owned weapons, and when I told them he did, they became reluctant to respond and basically told me there was nothing they could do about the threats. In the weeks that followed, I called them several times. Once or twice they went over to try to calm him down. One of those times he told them I was going to “end up in a body bag,” but apparently that was not enough to warrant an arrest.

A friend of mine was married to a deputy, so I called and asked him for advice. He suggested I go take out a warrant against him, and get a protective order. I did it the very same day, and laid low praying that they would get him before he got us. After two days, when I still hadn’t heard anything, I called to find out what happened. They told me he had been served, but they weren’t sure he’d seen it yet. While I was actually naive enough to think they might put him in jail, I soon found that serving him only meant that a pink piece of paper was taped the the door of his house ordering him to court in 30 days . When he got home from a long shift as a staff physician, that piece of paper merely served to enrage him more. The threats through friends and family intensified.

I reached out to my pastor, and he went by to see my husband. Although he had only been a nominal member of the church, while I served faithfully, my pastor seemed to believe my husband’s story over mine. He seemed to think that I had done something to set him off, because nobody would go that crazy without reason. I tried to explain that I’d spent our entire marriage trying to avoid setting him off, but I never knew what might do it. One time, he tore the house up because he was mad at the cat. Another time, he became furious and started breaking things, because our daughter used his hairbrush and forgot to put it back. My solution to that was to go out and buy 17 brushes so that would never happen again. I always tried to smooth the way for him, but nothing was ever enough. We never knew what might set him off. The most stressful time of the day was when he walked in the door from work. Would he be in a good mood or a bad mood? If it was good, nothing would bother him, but if it was bad everything would anger him and all we could do was try to avoid him.

I explained all of this to my pastor, and he suggested we come in for a counseling session. As afraid as I was, I wanted our marriage to work so I went. I arrived 20 minutes early to avoid meeting my husband in the parking lot. When he arrived, he seemed calm and cool. We sat and listened as our pastor told us how he thought we could repair our marriage, but inside I knew none of it would work. In our 13 years of marriage, we had seen at least a dozen counselors or pastors, and nothing anyone had suggested had worked. Somehow they all put the burden for his behavior on me. I was told to boost his self-esteem, to keep a cleaner house, to pray more and ask God to show me my contribution to the problem. Most of the time, I was way ahead of the counselors and already doing what they prescribed. We had learned to tip toe around my husband quite well, except on those rare occasions when something unexpected came up. It didn’t seem anything we did could help us in those situations.

Even though he had been prone to fits of rage over the years, he had only been physically abusive towards me about 4 or 5 times in the entire length of our marriage, so I didn’t really consider myself abused. I just thought he lost control because of his troubled upbringing and long hours at work. I never thought he was intentionally trying to hurt me, so I made every effort to bring healing to our marriage. For a year and a half after that initial separation I reached out to anyone I thought might be able to help. After all, I didn’t believe in divorce! Yet, nobody had the answers I longed to find. Every earthly resource failed us–  from the legal system to law enforcement, from counselors to the church. The violence simply became more frequent and more deadly.

One day my twelve-year-old daughter asked me why I didn’t just leave and give up the idea of reconciliation. My response was that God hates divorce. Immediately she said, “God hates divorce, but he’s going to hate it a lot more when my mom is dead.” Even after hearing that, I refused to give up. It took nearly losing my life to decide I needed to leave, and it was the hardest thing I’d ever done, because everything in me wanted to save that marriage. Even after I left, I waited on God hoping he would change my husband’s heart. Not until he remarried five years later did I feel released from that marriage.

During that five year separation I struggled and grieved over the loss of the marriage. I was also overwhelmed with guilt and condemnation because I couldn’t make it work. Still, I knew I had no other choice. Even though I couldn’t find the right help, I felt I had failed somehow. One day as I was reading 1 Corinthians 7 regarding separation from an unbeliever, God gave me peace about leaving. Since my husband claimed to be a Believer, and since he kept saying he wanted to stay in the marriage, I didn’t think the passage applied to us. However, that day I saw that the reason Paul released believing spouses from such marriages was that “God has called us to peace” (7:15). That passage leapt off the page into my heart as I realized I had not had peace in the entire 23 years I had been with my husband (8 years of dating and 15 of marriage). Suddenly I saw God’s kind intention towards me. He wasn’t condemning me for getting out, I was condemning myself and many in the church did too.

In the years since I left my marriage I have reached back to help others in similar situations, and have seen plenty of victims face condemnation from the very people they approached for help. Like me, most have been made to feel responsible for their abusers’ actions. I’ve seen them struggle with the same unbelievable lack of resources I faced. It wasn’t that people didn’t try to help– they didn’t know how!  People perish for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6), and when helpers don’t understand the dynamics of abuse, they very often make things worse. They minimize or deny the problem and fail to believe victims who finally get up the courage to come forward. They elevate marriages over lives, and fail to recognize the deadly nature of domestic violence.

Recently a woman I know fled to the local domestic violence shelter for help. When they did a lethality index, it indicated she has a very high chance of becoming a victim of domestic homicide. Yet, a month later, her pastor was encouraging her to come in for couples counseling. I wish I could say it’s an exception to see domestic violence mishandled by the church, but sadly my experience with hundreds of women has shown me it is the rule. Every time I hear a story like this, I become more determined to make a difference.

The bottom line is that abusers continue to abuse, because we close our eyes to it. We try to pretend it’s not all that common– even though the American Medical Association says one in three American women will experience it– even though statistics are no better in the church– and even though it “is widely accepted by abuse experts (and validated by numerous studies) that evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group (and more likely than secular men) to assault their wives.”

Not only do we ignore the problem, we actually make it easier for abusers when none of the systems in place are able to effectively protect victims, including the church. When I look at scripture, I see God’s heart for the oppressed and his mandate for us to “loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, to let the oppressed go free, and.. break every yoke” (Is. 58:6).  That is our calling as his people, and we need many voices if we are ever to overcome this awful plight.

Where Faith & Depression Meet

The first time I met with “Jennifer” she told me she was struggling with severe depression. As usual, I spent our first counseling session gathering information about her past, and wasn’t surprised to learn that she had experienced sexual abuse at the hands of an older cousin from the time she was 8-years-old until she was 13. When the secret finally came out, her mother told her not to say anything to anyone, but just to avoid being alone with her cousin. She wasn’t even sure if her mom spoke to her cousin’s parents, and somehow she was made to feel responsible for what happened.

For years Jennifer carried the shame of what happened to her. She grew up and married, but he turned out to be physically abusive, and by the time her son was 5 she was divorced. As her marriage was falling apart, a friend invited her to church. Within months of visiting the church, Jennifer fell in love with the One who suffered and died in order to redeem her soul. Her life was changed, and she felt peace like none she had ever known. Yet, five years later she was meeting with me because of depression.

As a survivor of abuse I could relate to Jennifer’s struggle. Getting out of the abuse was much easier than getting the abuse out of my head. It had warped my thinking, and caused me to believe lies about God and about myself. I found myself consumed with negative thoughts, and the more I thought about things, the more depressed I became. I wondered why God allowed the abuse to happen, and felt that my experiences had damaged me for life. It seemed as though I was engulfed in darkness, and suicidal thoughts plagued me. If  not for my children, I’m not sure I would be here today. But that wasn’t the end of the story for me. Misery drove me to scripture. Between my own private bible study, and a few solid group studies, I became determined to “cast down” the negative thoughts that overwhelmed me (2 Co. 10:5). I often tell people God brought me through an intensive period of supernatural cognitive behavioral therapy that eventually set me free.

Jennifer was looking for freedom from depression too, but when I asked her about her thought life, she just looked at me and said, “I really don’t think about anything.” That is the day I came up with the idea of keeping a “thought journal.” I asked Jennifer to set a timer to go off several times a day (especially those times when she was feeling depressed), and to write down what she was thinking about during those times. The idea was to write out any negative beliefs that were fueling the depression, and then to find scriptures to counter them. When I met with Jennifer a week later, I asked about her journal. She told me that the timer had worked, because she realized that she was constantly thinking discouraging thoughts. Even though she had been out of abusive relationships for years, her abusers still had power over her. Deep below the surface she felt she was unworthy of God’s love. Even worse, she doubted it altogether.

The solution for Jennifer, and for anyone struggling with negative emotions, is to identify beliefs that are contrary to God’s truth. I often tell ladies in our support group to print out specific passages of scripture, and to say them out loud any time the destructive thoughts come. I also believe that singing along with praise music is powerful, because it makes God bigger than our problems. In his presence there is fullness of joy (Ps. 16:11), and depression will have to flee. I used to imagine myself being held by the Mighty Warrior as he quieted me with his love and rejoiced over me with singing (Zep. 3:17). There is nothing more healing than being in his presence. Those who make the effort to find him in the midst of their pain will not be disappointed. He gives us “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness” (Is. 61:3). 

God is a healer! I have never seen him fail to restore those who have tenaciously determined to believe his truth. It’s not a quick fix, but it is a powerful one. Nothing gives me greater joy than to watch the faces of God’s precious children learning to embrace the freedom he offers. If you are plagued by depression or anxiety, please know that he offers “liberty for the captives” (Lk. 4:18), even as you learn to “take every thought captive” to his truth (2 Co. 10:5). Identifying false beliefs about God and about yourself, and replacing those thoughts with his promises will heal your broken heart. Ultimately, his peace, that surpasses human comprehension, will protect your mind from worry and your heart from despair (Phil. 4:7).

 

If you read this article, and are wondering where to begin, please contact me  for a list of helpful scriptures.

When the Abused Become Abusive

One of my passions in life is to help victims of domestic violence heal from abuse. In the twenty years I’ve been doing this work, I have seen some amazing transformations. God specializes in turning ashes to beauty, and I often tell people that those who have come through and overcome the traumas of abuse are some of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet. They have a depth of character and faith that is unparalleled by most in this world.

But sadly, I have also seen many victims who have never healed. The vast majority of these individuals manifested symptoms like anxiety and depression, but recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my work. Lately I’ve had several encounters with former victims who have become abusive themselves.* Scripture warns us, “Do not make friends with a hot-tempered person, do not associate with one easily angered, or you may learn their ways and get yourself ensnared” (Pr. 22:24-25). After living with abuse for 23 years, I know this was true for me. One day, about a year after leaving my ex, my children were misbehaving on a trip. When they didn’t straighten up after a first and second warning, I lost it. I slammed on the brakes, pulled over, and yelled at them with the harshest words I could find. The shock in their eyes said it all. They were used to seeing their dad that way, but I usually held it together better than that. As I pulled back onto the road, I felt a familiar tug on my heart. The Spirit of God within was so grieved, I finally pulled back over and apologized to my daughters for acting that way. I told them that we had all learned to be angry, but promised I would do everything in my power to unlearn and overcome it.

In the years that followed, God set me free from my anger. I learned to place my strong emotions in His loving hands, and trust His goodness so that I didn’t need to fret about the people who hurt me along the way. I learned to forgive, and leave justice in His hands. Unfortunately, some people who have experienced abuse never learn these lessons. Statistics show that children who grow up with abuse are more likely to become abusive, and the same is often true of adults coming out of abusive relationships. When people hurt us, it is natural to put up walls and try to protect ourselves. The problem is that those walls very often turn into self-made prisons. We grasp for control to ensure nobody will ever hurt us that way again, and usually the outcome is that we end up hurting others. We become quick to judge and slow to listen. We even assume evil motives in people who are genuinely on our side.

This is what I’ve been seeing in ministry lately. One lady we tried to help soon began to blame us for all of her problems. She wanted to dictate exactly how we helped her, and when we were unable to comply, she lashed out saying we were the cause of all of her troubles. The thing is that she had all of those problems before we even met her. She also had a trail of broken relationships, and had alienated nearly every friend and family member. We tried to help, but eventually realized that no matter what we did, it would never be enough. She would never be able to believe that our actions weren’t laden with selfish motives. The more comfortable she became with me, the more verbally abusive she became, and finally I was forced to cut ties altogether. As much as I wanted to help that dear woman, I couldn’t. The very act of trying ended up hurting me. This is probably the hardest part of working with victims.

Many victims who fail to heal end up repeating the same abusive patterns that caused them harm. It may not become physically abusive, but they are masters at stirring up misery. They come across as self-righteous, and critical of those who don’t agree with them. They twist your words to fit their own self-seeking agendas. Victim /abusers don’t have ears to hear. They only hear what they already believe, based on their past experiences. When you try to reason with them, it only ends up hurting you. Filled with self-pity, they use guilt to control you. They are easily offended, and assume evil motives on your part. Basically, their actions are the exact opposite of God’s description of love in I Corinthians 13:4-7. Rather than giving their hurts to God, and applying His truths for healing, these wounded abusers simply continue to give power to their abusers by carrying on their traditions.

 

 

*Note: Many abusers accuse their victims of being abusive, and often counselors wrongly believe that abuse is provoked. This article is not referring to situations like that. Those who counsel these situations must learn the dynamics of domestic violence in order to be able to discern truly abusive patterns.

Caught in a Deadly Cycle

Guest blogpost by “Stephanie.”

I am 22 years old. I am going through a divorce from my first abusive marriage when I meet my second abuser. I have no clue what the next few years will be like. My mother is dying from cancer. My father has lost his job, and it’s all my parents can do to live off unemployment and pay the nearly $1 million in cancer bills for my mom’s care. I feel scared, worried, and very uncertain of the future. Mark comes into my life, and I feel like he brings stability in a time when I’m very vulnerable. He is quite a bit older than I am, and he works with me. He definitely knows all the right things to say, and in no time at all, he has swept me off my feet. Flowers, sweet notes, and he even programs my computer at work to have sweet messages pop up when I log in to my computer, as he is the software developer for the company I work for. This is it, I think. I have found the one! Within a year and a half, we get married.

It doesn’t take long for me to realize that Mark is a very jealous person. He bites and pinches me, saying that it’s just a joke, telling me he’s leaving his mark on me so people will know that I am his. The bites and pinches leave bruises, and people start asking me why my arms have black and blue marks all over them. My mother has since passed away, and, being adopted, I reach out to try and find the birth mother who gave me up.  It was my mom’s dying wish for me to find her since she knew that she wouldn’t be here for me. When I do find her, we have many phone conversations trying to catch up for the years lost. Mark gets very jealous, and he starts counting the minutes I spent on the phone with her, even though those minutes were spent on my 45 minute commute home from work and it doesn’t cost anything extra.  He also begins to count the number of text messages I send to her and other people, and compares the number of text messages on our phone bill to the number in my cell phone. He goes through my phone regularly, and when he notices the number of text does not match the number on the phone bill, he interrogates me. He has a drinking problem and it is very evident. Whenever I get home in the evenings, he is always drinking. He works five minutes from our home, and I work 45 minutes away, but he tells me that because his job is more stressful and because he brings in a higher income, the bulk of the cleaning and maintaining the house should belong to me.  I should be very grateful for him providing a six-figure income, he says. He goes behind me and wipes his finger on the furniture looking for dust and inspecting my work, after I clean, almost always telling me I need to do better. His punishment of choice when I do something he doesn’t like is the silent treatment.
He sits away from me and refuses to show any affection or love, and won’t communicate, but rather, sits there staring off into space. I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough and trying to win his affection is the hardest thing I have ever done. There are no more flowers or kind notes or sweet words from when we were dating. No, it’s like pouring water down a rat hole trying to make this man happy. It’s a never ending struggle. Being a people pleaser, I try to keep the house spotless, but there are many nights I’m tired from driving 45 minutes each way to work, and I’m also expected to cook dinner most nights.  One of his rules is that there must be two vegetables cooked with every meal.  This is something, he says, his first wife would not do. He always talks about how fat and lazy she was and how terrible of a person she was. I later find out that none of this is true, as I talk to her myself. She is a cute, bubbly, very happy girl who has a lot to offer, and he tore her down.  He monitors how long I walk the dogs, and tells me it needs to be at least 2 miles a day. It’s never his responsibility though, it’s always put on me. He often spends time upstairs locked in the spare bedroom playing video games.  Eventually, I start finding evidence of pornography he has viewed, although he denies it and tells me it must have accidentally downloaded. I know better.  He tells his parents that I accused him of viewing pornography, and his father called me on the phone, telling me I need to apologize to him, that he would never do something like that, and then begins to blame me, saying I must’ve been the one that looked up those videos.  Over our marriage, I have noticed his father is very controlling and dominating over his mother, and his mother suffers from severe depression, and I think that is the main reason why.  The pornography makes me feel like I’m not good enough, as he must want to look at other women for fulfillment.
 When he drinks, Mark gets more and more belligerent and angry. And he drinks very frequently. One night, he starts verbally slamming my birth mother and telling me that eventually, I may have to choose between him and her.  His parents back him up on this, telling me that I may have to choose between him and my biological family. I try to stand up to him for once, and I tell him that if he’s going to be like that, maybe I need to leave for a while to sort things out. This is when he jumps out of his chair, lunges towards me, grabs my shoulders, and slams me up against one of the square columns in our big, beautiful, very expensive house. My spine hits the corner of the column as he shoves me against it and I can’t move. I am terrified as the wood digs into my back and spine and he grabs my arms with every bit of strength he can.  I finally manage to wiggle out of his grip, but he grabs me with both arms and is squeezing me so hard and in such an angry rage that he is shaking. I begin to suffocate, as he has my mouth and nose sealed off.  Finally, he lets me go, and I am hyperventilating and walking in circles. He tells me that I’m doing it for attention. I truly can’t help it, how I wish he would see that. He tells me that if I tell anyone anything about that night, he will divorce me. Not wanting to be alone, not wanting another failed marriage, I don’t tell anyone. The next morning, I wake up and go into the bathroom and see my body is covered in bruises.  It is almost summer, so I have to wear long sleeves to work to hide it. This isn’t what a marriage is supposed to be, is it? How could I have made the same mistake twice?  All I ever wanted was to be loved. I know that I have a lot to offer a partner. My parents taught me how to be a loving person, and although I’m not perfect, I want a happy marriage and to be in love and share my life with someone who loves me back. And, if I leave this one, who would possibly ever want me? Especially with me only being in my 20s.  What’s more, who would believe me anyway? He seems like the nicest guy you would ever meet to anyone who doesn’t live at home with us. He holds doors for old ladies, knows everything right to say, and seems very mild-mannered. No one knows the violence I live with at home.  I keep asking myself why he hurt me like he did. After all, when we first started dating, he actually had tears in his eyes when he told me he couldn’t believe the things my first husband did to me, and how he would never lay a hand on me. And now look at what has happened.  Shortly after this incident, Mark tells me he wants to buy a handgun. I keep wondering why he wants a gun, as he has never had one before. It frightens me.
 Not long after this incident, I finally get the courage to leave. Mark tells me that I need to pay him thousands of dollars, even though he has over $100,000 of his own in the bank. His reasoning is that there was a short time in the marriage when I did not work, and I need to reimburse him for, as he puts it, taking care of me. Not wanting to argue, I write him a check for the amount he asks, emptying my savings in the process. His parents hate me, and by this point, he has told everyone that I cheated on him, which I did not. He has made up things about me and made me feel so humiliated. I just want to crawl into a hole and die.
 I’m 26 years old, and I have left my second abusive relationship. I don’t know it yet, but this is not the last abuser to come into my life.
Thanks to my dear friend “Stephanie” for sharing her story.  I’ve know her since her first abusive marriage was ending, and have seen the devastating effects of domestic violence on her life. But I also stand amazed at her resilient spirit. Please pray for her continued healing and restoration. 

When Praying Makes Things… Worse?

Have you ever prayed fervently for a situation to change, only to find matters getting worse? I know I have. I have seen it many times in my years of working with victims of domestic violence. In these situations, things often escalate to unbearable in spite of ardent prayers and abundant effort. It sometimes seems as if God doesn’t see or care about our struggles. After all, if He was on our side, wouldn’t circumstances improve? However, if scripture is to be our guide, we need to look at how He worked with His people there to see if that expectation is valid.

This morning as I was reading in Exodus, I found the story of the Israelites’ plight after Moses and Aaron approached Pharaoh to let the people go and worship. According this passage, God had heard the cries of the Israelites, and sent Moses to plead on their behalf. However, instead of helping the situation, it hurt! Pharaoh severely cut the supplies needed for their work. The situation seemed hopeless all around, and even Moses became discouraged.

The Israelite overseers realized they were in trouble when they were told, “You are not to reduce the number of bricks required of you for each day.” When they left Pharaoh, they found Moses and Aaron waiting to meet them, and they said, “May the LORD look on you and judge you! You have made us obnoxious to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.” (Ex. 5:19-23-emphasis added.)

The story could’ve have ended right there, but Moses took his confusion and complaints to the Lord. Even more significant, he continued to obey God in spite of negative circumstances. Moses was full of doubt about his own abilities, and he was discouraged about the Israelites anger towards him, but he still continued to follow God’s path. We all know the outcome. God used his obedience to bring about a miraculous deliverance—just when things seemed impossible. In the end, terrible oppression made liberation seem even more incredible.

When I think of my own story of escaping abuse, I can see His hand in every painful experience. All I knew to do was cling to Him, because everything else had failed me— from the courts to the church. Even people who loved me and wanted to help had no clue how to do it. In the long run, the overwhelmingly impossible nature of the situation made me desperate for Him. I spent long hours in prayer and scripture, and even came up with a database of passages that were particularly helpful.[1] I made a decision to believe His promises, because nothing else was working. All I could do was hold on to Him for dear life, and He was faithful. Circumstances did not improve in the beginning. In fact, they became worse, but in the end my faith in Him became stronger than it had ever been and He delivered me. I often tell people that even though I would have never chosen to suffer like I did, I am grateful for it, because it drove me to Him. My relationship with Him became my anchor, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

If you think that circumstances are a measure of God’s care, or lack thereof, you are missing a beautiful opportunity to allow Him to redeem your story. God is not a magic genie who snaps His fingers and makes everything suddenly all right. He also will not force anyone to follow His ways, but He will use your pain for good. Please understand, I am not saying you should stay in a harmful situation. Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people fleeing danger. Instead, I am saying, cling to the One who loves you most, and you will not be disappointed. He will use your trials to grow you and your faith. I’ve worked with survivors of domestic abuse for over 20 years, and those who have held onto Him have simply amazed me. I have never met more amazing people than those who have proven Him faithful in the midst of great suffering.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to become an amazing example of His redemption, I encourage you to go to scripture. God specializes in using reluctant and under qualified people for His purposes. He not only wants to redeem your situation, but if you let Him, He will use you to help others who will face the same battles you’ve faced (2 Cor. 1:4). Take your doubts and struggles to Him, and determine to hold on to His promises. Just keep walking in His direction, and don’t let people or circumstances warp your view of Him. He will deliver you in due time, and in the process you will develop faith that is unshakeable.

[1] If you’d like a copy of this scriptural database, please email me at info@calledtopeace.org.

Lies Victims Believe

How Things Our Abusers Told Us Keep Us from Answering God’s Call

Working with people who have suffered domestic abuse can be the most rewarding and frustrating job in the world. It’s rewarding, because many of the survivors I work with develop a depth of faith that most Christians can’t even imagine. They face impossible situations and tremendous loss. Many lose nearly all their worldly possessions and face sudden financial ruin. They are often stalked and in imminent danger. Some even lose custody of their children, because their abusers are able to afford expensive attorneys, and they have no choice but to go to court without representation.

I could go on and on telling stories of injustice and intense suffering, but the point is that in extremely trying times, my dear friends learn to hold on to God in a way that is simply incredible. They probably don’t know it, but as I sit and listen to their stories in counseling sessions and support groups, I am in awe. I’m in awe of God’s faithfulness and their ability to rise above the pain, even when everything, and everyone on earth, has failed them. It is simply incredible to watch God turn ashes into beauty, and that’s what helps me maintain motivation to continue doing a work that can be exceptionally difficult.

I wish I could say that all the folks I work with “get it”—that they suddenly have an epiphany and learn to cling to God and prove Him faithful, but that’s simply not the case. Many let their pain become their identity, and they stay emotionally crippled for life. It’s so hard to watch these precious souls struggle. Sadly, they are alienated from the very One who can bring healing, because their image of Him has been warped by abusive people who portrayed Him as harsh and demanding rather than gracious and merciful. All we can do is show them His love, and pray that someday they will come to realize the truth. However, many remain victims and never move on.

Believing lies about God can keep folks in the victim mode, but there are other lies that prevent them from reaching their full potential. Even some of my friends with extraordinary faith in God never seem to get past believing destructive lies about themselves. So many times when I reach out to survivors to help with our ministry I see an all-too-familiar hesitation to help. It’s not that they don’t want to, or that they don’t have the heart for it. It’s because they don’t think they’re worthy. They seem to think they’re too broken, and they need to get their own lives together before they can possibly think of helping others.

There’s a familiar pain in their expressions that tells me they’re still believing the lies their abusers told them. “There’s no way you could ever do this.” “Do you really think anyone cares to hear anything you have to say?” “You’ll make a fool of yourself when they find out who you really are.” Almost every time I see it, I want to shake them and say, “Don’t you realize how incredible you are?! You’ve beaten all the odds, and come out shining like gold. You’re an amazing woman of faith! The world needs your voice.” But for these folks, it’s easier to believe truths about God than about themselves. Until they do they’re missing His best for their lives, and opportunities to bring Him glory.

Have you ever been told you have nothing to offer? Has someone made you doubt the incredible gifts God has given you? Is buried shame still controlling your decisions? If so, I implore you to reject the lies. Perhaps a flawed and insecure person has caused you to doubt your calling and your identity as His child, but the Perfect One is still calling. He still wants to use you, and He sees you as worthy (1 John 3:1, Eph. 2:4-7). He doesn’t want you to wait until you think you’ve got it all together, because if you do, you may never find His purpose for your life. He delights in using broken people for His purposes, but you have to choose to believe Him above the lies of a deceiver. The Truth will set you free, and when you receive it, you will be His instrument to help others find that same freedom.

Sacred Cows in the Church: Honoring Marriages over Lives

Recently our ministry hosted a conference on domestic violence in the church. We promoted it to pastors and church counselors, but the majority of participants turned out to be former and current victims of abuse. As participants introduced themselves, I heard an all too familiar story. Several mentioned surviving abuse only to find themselves being hurt again by their churches.

One dear lady said she left the church altogether after she reported the abuse and separated from her abuser. Her husband was in leadership at the church, and the other leaders believed his story over hers– even when she provided proof and got a protective order. Rather than finding help when she mustered up enough courage to reach out for help, she received blame. According to the church, she was desecrating the holy institution of marriage by separating from her husband, and there was no way she could convince them otherwise. Eventually, she chose freedom from bondage over the church, and she has been out of church ever since. She gets sermons online and on the radio, but she is afraid to trust Christians in a community setting again. There were other participants with similar stories, but most moved to other churches rather than leaving the church altogether.

I can’t tell you how many times I have heard this story over my years as an advocate of domestic violence victims. Why do churches so often seem to honor institutions over people? Apparently, it’s fairly common among religious people. Jesus regularly offended the religious leaders’ understanding of the Sabbath. In their eyes, he was constantly violating it, but Jesus responded with “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In other words, when God ordains something, it is out of love for his people, but too often we get religious and elevate the institutions above the ones they are intended to bless. Even in ancient Israel this was a problem.

Say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am about to desecrate my sanctuary—the stronghold in which you take pride, the delight of your eyes, the object of your affection. The sons and daughters you left behind will fall by the sword. Ez. 24:21

It’s interesting to me that when God brought judgment on Israel, he even destroyed his own sanctuary. The thing he had set up as holy and valuable would become completely desecrated. As a parent, I know how difficult punishing my children could be—sometimes it hurt me as much as it did them. This had to be the case for God. He could no longer sit by and watch their self-destructive course, and the only remedy was severe consequences, because all the warnings in the world had not even fazed them.

They had turned his sacred sanctuary into an object of idolatry, and as a result he even allowed it to be destroyed. He cares far more about our devotion than any institution. The modern church certainly seems to have their own set of idols, and marriage seems to be at the top of the list. When we allow a good thing that was instituted by God become more important than those it was intended to bless, we miss his heart. It reminds me of the sacred cows in India. People die of starvation daily while they walk around unfettered and unused as a source of food.

In the modern church, marriage has become a “sacred cow.”  Yes, marriage is a wonderful thing, but when one partner chooses to break the covenant it can become a source of harm rather than blessing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to save failing marriages, but when that is not possible, we must never condemn someone for leaving a harmful situation. God cares more about people than institutions—even those he established. Legalism cares more about the institutions, even when people are perishing in the midst. My heart grieves for people like that dear lady who came Saturday. Since she was not honored above her marriage, she has walked away from another institution (the church) that should be speaking life into her wounded soul.

Lord,  awaken your church, and help us learn to love you and your people above anything else– even good things you have ordained. Amen

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.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 5

This is the 5th and final post in a series on recognizing abusive patterns in relationships. Most people believe that physical abuse stems from heated arguments, but generally speaking, that is not the case. Most often abusers becomes violent when the techniques  described on the Power and Control Wheel fail to achieve the desired control. Today we look at the last 3 tactics found on the Wheel.

Minimizing, Denying and Blaming

Grace had been married to Charlie for over 10 years, and was a stay-at-home mom. Although, she went to extreme measures to please Charlie, he criticized her constantly. The house was never clean enough, the kids were never good enough, and meals never seemed to meet his approval. Grace tried very hard to please him, so one day she decided to cook 2 meals in an attempt to find something Charlie would like. Instead, he walked in late and went straight upstairs, ignoring both meals. Soon after, Grace discovered Charlie was seeing another woman, and he’d had dinner with her that evening. When she confronted Charlie, he turned the situation all back on Grace. First of all, he explained, he had done nothing wrong, and she was being ridiculous. He criticized her for even bringing it up, and when she pressed him on the subject, he started blaming her for his actions. Maybe if she had been more attentive to his needs or managed to do something right from time to time, he wouldn’t have needed to find outside companionship. Basically, he told her she had no right to question his actions, and if she wanted to see things improve in the marriage, she needed to try harder.

Grace also learned that Charlie was slapping their 10-year-old son on a regular basis, and the same thing happened when she tried to talk to him about her concerns. At first he denied it was even happening, but when she caught him doing it one day, he simply acted like it was no big deal. When she expressed her concern that it was contributing to their son’s anger issues, he turned it back on Grace. “Of course, he’s angry! He has to live with you!” No matter what she said and did to confront the wrongs against the children and herself, Charlie always either denied wrongdoing, minimized it or blamed someone else. He never accepted responsibility for his actions.

Economic Abuse

Jan’s husband John put her on a very strict allowance, and it usually fell far short of meeting the basic needs for their family of six. When she went to the grocery store, Jan had to bring back her receipt so that John could analyze every item she bought. He ridiculed half of her purchases and called them wasteful. On the other hand, she had to make sure she bought him special (and somewhat expensive) snacks that nobody else was allowed to touch. When extra expenses popped up, such as prescription co-pays or extracurricular fees for the kids, Jan didn’t have enough left for necessities. She had two little ones in diapers, and one on formula, but the budget barely allowed for these items. If she ran out of money, John ridiculed her for being frivolous. Eventually, Jan decided it might help to take on a part time job in the evenings to help out, but John refused to let her work. Although he constantly claimed to be broke, he often bought high-dollar items for the kids and himself. The older kids were given the latest smart phones, and he bought a boat. Jan was still using an old flip phone her sister had given her several years back.

John made sure that Jan did not have access to his income, or bank information. She only had access to the joint account he set up for her allowance. Even at tax time, John simply had her sign their tax returns without looking at them, but one day she caught a glimpse at his annual income, and found that, in spite of his claims of being broke, John was earning well over six figures. She was barely surviving on what he gave her, but he wasn’t struggling at all. He simply enjoyed wielding power over Jan.

Using Male Privilege

When Jan finally got up enough courage to ask the church for help, John discredited everything she said. Since she had struggled with post-partum depression, he used that to convince the church she was completely unstable. John was considered a leader in the church, and his outstanding service gave people little reason to doubt him. On the other hand, Jan was usually pretty frazzled. She had been in a bible study I had taught a few years prior. At the time, John approached me to say he hoped I could help her with her issues. He acted like she was very troubled, but didn’t give me details. He seemed like such a good guy, I even fell for his portrayal of her.

When she approached me in tears two years later, we set up a meeting and even then, I’m ashamed to say, I doubted her more than him. Eventually, as we met, I did begin to recognize the abusive pattern, and I approached our pastor to say I felt the situation was potentially dangerous. His response was that I was only hearing one side of the story, and that he believed Jan was making up lies “to destroy her husband.” When I asked why she would do such a thing he referred me to years of joint counseling sessions in which John was able to get her to admit she was wrong for accusing him. John had also shown him a video of Jan “freaking out” and yelling. Of course, there was nothing on the videos showing what led up to that, but his efforts to discredit her were hugely successful. The consensus among church leaders was that John was a great guy with a very troubled wife. The worst part of it was that he was able to use his role as head of the house to keep Jan subdued. At home, he reminded her that she was to submit to him, and did not involve her in any family decisions. He basically dictated how things would be. In counseling sessions, he often complained that Jan was not submissive. In addition to exercising male privilege, I would say John used spiritual abuse by distorting his biblical role as head to force his self-seeking agenda, which is ultimately the goal of all of the tactics found on the Power and Control Wheel.

Anyone who truly wishes to help families living with domestic violence must understand these patterns of control and manipulation. A lack of knowledge truly causes people to perish. If counselors and pastors are unfamiliar with these patterns, they will easily be fooled by the abuser, and see the victim as the cause of the problem. I have seen far too many victims come under church discipline, or told to submit to the abuser and let God handle him, when in fact abusers need accountability, and victims need practical solutions rather than weak advice that doesn’t work. Domestic violence is an epidemic in our world and our churches! Until people of faith learn how to help, they simply perpetuate the destructive cycle.

 

 

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 4

This article is part 4 in a 5 part series on recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship. Many victims do not even realize their relationships are abusive. The intent of these articles is to show that domestic violence is far more than physical abuse.

Emotional Abuse 

Women who live with domestic violence often tell me they prefer hitting to the emotional torture their abusers put them through. The Power and Control Wheel calls it emotional abuse, and while some may not agree with the terminology, there is definitely an emotionally destructive element to these relationships. “Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.”[i] Tactics include: putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, name calling, mind games, making her think she’s crazy, humiliation, and making her feel guilty. Several years ago, I watched a woman in a store ask her husband if she could purchase a three-dollar item. Rather than saying yes or no, her husband began to put her down in front of everyone present. He asked her how she could be so foolish as to want to buy something that cheap, and indicated that she probably wouldn’t even use it. As he was criticizing her for her stupidity, he looked over at us and chuckled. It was clear he enjoyed taunting his wife, and that he saw her as inferior. Her face turned red as she tried to mumble out answers to his questions, and finally she put the item back to avoid further humiliation. It seems silly that something so small could ignite such a fury, but that’s the nature of domestic violence. Molehills become mountains on a regular basis when you live with an abuser.

One woman at the shelter told me that sometimes she would purposely do something to get her husband to hit her, just because she knew that once the abuse was over there would be a break in the verbal assaults for a while. Victims are made to feel they are constantly wrong, incompetent and worthless. No matter what the issue, and no matter who is right or wrong, everything gets turned around and the victim ends up getting blamed for everything. The sad thing is that abusers are often skilled enough to convince counselors and pastors that their wives really are to blame for most of the problems in the marriage. They go to great lengths to portray themselves as morally superior and intellectually more reasonable than their victims, and by the time they get to counseling many victims are so overwhelmed, and insecure about themselves, that they do seem unstable.

Isolation

Abusers love to isolate their victims from people and situations that might provide them with support. I have had women tell me that, after getting married, they eventually lost every single friend. My friend Kathy was rarely allowed to see her family- even on holidays. On several occasions, her husband reached out to her friends and family and told them it was her decision to cut off the relationships. He led them to believe that she was mentally unstable, and he was doing his best to make things easier on her. However, he was the one controlling her contact with others. She was basically allowed to go to church (with him), and to the grocery store as long as she wasn’t gone too long, and came home with a receipt to prove her whereabouts.

      Abusers use isolation to try and make sure their victims have nowhere to turn when things get tough. Most controlling people live in fear of losing control, so they go to great lengths to maintain it. Linda’s husband, Dave, bought a 17-acre farm 20 minutes from the nearest town, and he had the only car in the family. He was retired, so Linda had him as her constant companion. Dave controlled what she ate, what she read, and even her opinions. She was not allowed to disagree with him in any way. When I met her, they had been married over 30 years, and up until just before she came to the shelter, he had never laid a hand on her. Although Dave did not allow Linda to have friends, he had several, and when he invited his friend Carl out to visit, he brought his wife, Lucy. This was the first friend Linda had been allowed in years, and she was grateful. One day when the men were out hunting, Lucy told Linda she needed to stand up to Dave’s bullying, and let him know she had a right to her opinion. Shortly afterwards, she did just that, and Dave went ballistic. He beat her so badly she nearly died, and he ended up in prison. For all the years they had been married isolation had achieved its goal. When she completely isolated, Linda was too afraid to refuse any of Dave’s demands, but as soon as she found some external support she found courage to challenge him. Unfortunately, by the time she did, it nearly cost her life.

[i] Vernick, Leslie, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Colorado Springs, Waterbrook Press, 2013), Kindle Version Location 256.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 3

Part 3 in a Series. Today’s post will cover three of the 8 tactics abusers use as listed on the Power and Control Wheel. For more on the Wheel, see my previous post.

Coercion and Threats

At the top of the Power and Control Wheel we see that abusers use coercion and threats to maintain control. In the years I have worked with victims of domestic violence, nearly all of them have confirmed that these behaviors were used regularly in their homes. Some abusers threatened to leave their families and not provide for their basic needs, some threatened suicide in order to make sure they got their way, some threatened physical harm, and others just threatened to humiliate their wives somehow. In several cases, I’ve seen abusers go out of their way to make their wives look incompetent. After years of living with control and manipulation, my friend Jill became seriously depressed, and ended up taking anti-depressants. Her husband made sure he let the pastor know how concerned he was about his wife’s erratic behavior, her inability to parent properly, and her dependence on medication. Of course, the church had no idea of what really went on behind closed doors, and Jill knew better than try to tell them. At the same time, Jill’s husband made sure she knew that if she decided to leave the marriage, he would have no trouble having her declared incompetent and getting full custody of the children. For Jill this threat was far more powerful than bodily injury ever could have been. Her husband’s threats were highly effective in promoting his selfish interests.

Using the Children

Abusive people generally aim their threats directly at whatever their victims value most, so that means threats involving children are very common in these situations. In fact, many women stay in horrible situations far too long, because they know if they leave their spouses may harm the children. Such was the case with my friend Amy. She had endured occasional physical violence and relentless threats from the beginning of her marriage. Her husband kept a gun beside their bed, and let her know that if she ever tried to leave him he would use it on her. He even held it to her head on a few occasions. She knew she needed to leave, but was concerned about her children if she did, because he told her if she left he would “still have the children.” She wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but knew it wasn’t good. Finally, there came a day when she felt that if she didn’t get out, she would not live parent her children at all, so she mustered up the courage to take them and leave. Shortly after separation, Amy had to go to court to try and get legal custody of the kids. She told the judge her concerns about the children being with their father, but he granted regular, unsupervised visitation to her husband anyway. Amy wanted to believe that her husband wouldn’t make good on those vague threats, and that the court had made the right decision. However, in within a short amount of time, her 3-year-old son came home reporting being locked in a closet and giving descriptions of sexual abuse he and his sister had endured. Amy was finally able to stop the unsupervised visitation, but she learned that the threats against her children were not idle.

Unfortunately, Amy’s story is not an exception when it comes to domestic violence. In my own limited exposure, I have seen abusers intentionally use and misuse their children multiple times in order to punish their spouses. In other cases, it is not unusual for them to attempt to turn the children against their mothers. Basically abusers will do whatever they consider necessary to maintain control, regardless of the consequences to the children. I have seen women frozen in fear, because of these types of threats, but those I have known who decided to leave all tell me they made the right decision—even Amy. She believes things would have been far worse had she stayed. Living in fear of a man will never lead to the life God intends for you. Ask Him to help you devise a plan to leave, and be sure to utilize all the resources available to you. Your local domestic violence shelter can help you devise a safety plan, and connect you to legal resources to help you with custody issues.

Intimidation

Besides using their children to hurt their wives, abusers make regular use of intimidation techniques to instill fear and attain unfettered power in their families. Intimidation can range from a harsh look to extreme physical violence. Most abusive people have conditioned their victims to know when they are about to snap. As a result, a single angry glance can cause wives and children to completely freeze up or change their course of action. If a nasty look doesn’t get the desired result, or if the abuser is feeling particularly grumpy, he may resort to more physical tactics such as throwing and smashing things, destroying her property, or even abusing the household pets. When I was working at the shelter, one of the clients told me that her husband decapitated her dog in front of her and the children, and countless other victims told me that their family pets often received the brunt of the abuser’s wrath. One lady told me that her husband filled her car with poisonous snakes to make sure she didn’t go anywhere.

Intimidation is a highly effective tool for perpetrators of domestic violence, and it usually escalates in intensity if the abuser does not feel his demands are being met. Some of the behaviors often seen in the progression of violence include: blocking her exit from a room, screaming, raising a fist, denying access to prescription medicine, grabbing, jerking, shoving, spitting, pulling hair, and so on. If these methods do not work, then punching, kicking and other methods of inflicting more serious physical harm are likely to follow. An interesting thing to note here is that, even when hitting occurs, many abusers, in an effort to keep the abuse hidden, maintain enough control over themselves to make sure they hurt their victims in way that doesn’t leave obvious bruises.

 

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 2

Part 2 in a Series.

In order to recognize the signs of domestic violence, most experts rely on a tool called the Power and Control Wheel. This resource was created by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project of Duluth, Minnesota in 1984,[i] and is based on observation of several focus groups of women who had been physically abused. When project personnel began to interview these women, they discovered several patterns of control and manipulation that seemed to exist almost universally within the groups. As they began to document these common behaviors or tactics, the result was a tool that has been used by victims’ advocates for over three decades. The first time I laid eyes on a Power and Control Wheel I cried, as have numerous victims I have shared it with over the years. It’s pretty easy to deny a relationship is abusive until someone puts a detailed description of your life right in front of your eyes!  For years I suffered in silence, thinking that nobody knew what I was going through, but when I picked up the “Wheel,” it seemed as though somebody had been a silent observer in my house over the years. I was also amazed to find that I was not alone, and that an estimated one in four women experience physical abuse from an intimate partner within their lifetimes.[ii]

One thing that stands out to most observers is that the majority of behaviors listed on the Power and Control Wheel do not involve physical harm. I had denied that my relationship qualified as domestic violence simply because physical altercations were somewhat infrequent. However, the tactics described on this chart happened on a daily basis. According to this tool, bodily harm is simply a last resort when all other tactics fail to achieve the desired power and control. Domestic violence is not merely about physical harm, but about abusers establishing patterns of complete domination over their victims. Basically, the motivation is far more telling than the behavior. In his book, The Heart of Domestic Abuse, Pastor and biblical counselor Chris Moles states that abusive behavior “is driven by a heart of pride and self-worship.”[iii] True domestic violence is not merely a reactive pattern of behavior, but one that is intentionally self-serving. A look at the behaviors listed on the Power and Control wheel show just how self-seeking abusive conduct really is.

As we continue this series, my upcoming posts will describe each of the eight characteristics found on the wheel. Stay tuned!

power_and_control_wheel

[i] “Wheel Gallery” http://www.theduluthmodel.org/training/wheels.html. Accessed January 17, 2016.

[ii] Please note that the focus of this work is to highlight the more prevalent issue of male against female violence; however, we do recognize that women can also be abusive.

[iii] Moles, Chris, The Heart of Domestic Abuse: Gospel Solutions for Men Who Use Control and Violence in the Home (Bemidji, MN, Focus Publishing, 2015), 43.

Is My Relationship Abusive? Part 1    

One fine day, in the spring of 1995, I lied to a judge. This happened shortly after taking an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Oddly enough, I didn’t feel even a twinge of guilt, because at the time, I didn’t believe I was lying. I testified to the judge that my marriage of 14 years had not been abusive at all. Rather, some recent stress had caused my husband to snap, and act completely out of character. It was a story I wholeheartedly embraced, because I had been telling it to myself for so many years. Up until that point, there had been numerous incidences of violence, but it didn’t happen on a regular basis. In fact, a few years were completely violence-free. Perhaps another reason I did not think I was abused was the image that I had conjured up in my mind about abuse victims. When I thought about domestic violence, the term that came to my mind was “battered,”, and I was certainly not battered. In the entire length of our relationship, he had never once punched me with his fists. Our rare physical altercations usually began with something like a shove or being jerked by the arm. Once I had my fingers slammed into a drawer and once I was kicked. Oh yes, and there was that time when he held a knife to my throat, but no I wasn’t battered.

Perhaps believing lies was my way of trying to convince myself that things really weren’t that bad, so when I finally did have to admit I had been in abusive relationship, I felt like a complete fool. I had always considered myself pretty bright, and facing the truth challenged that belief. Another thing the truth challenged was my idealistic concept of my husband’s opinion of me. I thought that my ability to elicit such great emotion from him meant that he truly loved me. It didn’t matter that his actions towards me were the exact opposite of the biblical description of love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [i]

Whenever I came across this passage in my quiet times, I couldn’t help but notice that my husband’s actions towards me were most often the reverse. It didn’t take much for him to lose his patience with me, and within my first month of knowing him, jealously reared its ugly head several times. I can’t tell you how many times he embarrassed me in public by making rude comments towards others, the kids or me. I felt so vulnerable and unprotected when I was with him—certainly not protected. It was his way or no way, and lies were the foundation of our relationship. However, the most blatant contrast between godly love and my relationship was found in verse 5, which states that “love is not easily angered.” There were times when I couldn’t believe how seemingly insignificant details could enrage my husband, and over the years I’ve heard countless stories from other victims of abuse who suddenly found themselves the object of wrath when a small detail in the course of the day set off a reaction of atomic proportions.

One dear lady told me that she received a horrible beating simply because she left hamburger meat in the sink to thaw, another was belittled to the point of tears in front of her children because she failed to fold and stack her towels in the “correct” manner. Another relayed that her husband tore apart the entire house (throwing things against the walls, and clearing counters of their contents as he went through each room) after one of the children moved his hairbrush from its prescribed resting place in the bathroom. In recent years, a counselee told me that just leaving one cup in the kitchen sink would send her husband into a rage. I would call that being “easily angered,” and it took me years to realize that true love does not act that way.

Perhaps one reason victims tend to lie to themselves is because admitting the truth is almost more painful than the abuse. It means admitting that their husbands’ actions do not equate to love at all. So most convince themselves that wounds from the past (or mental illness, alcohol or drug dependency, etc.)  just make it harder for their husbands to deal with life, and that they don’t really choose those angry actions. I truly thought my husband was out of control when he blew up, and that I needed to try to hold things together so that he wouldn’t have a reason to lose it. I thought he needed me, and so I built my life around making things go as smoothly as possible for him. I realize this is probably contrary to the average stereotype about domestic violence. People who are unfamiliar with it, including many pastors and counselors, believe that domestic abuse is the result of heated arguments that could have been started by either party. Certainly no man would physically harm his wife unless she had done something to provoke him, right? It seems to be a logical conclusion, but the problem is, that in the vast majority of cases, it’s a faulty one.

Most abusive people are self-seeking, easily angered, impatient, along with all the other contradictions to God’s love listed in 1 Corinthians 13, and most victims have a hard time facing the fact that their abusers are choosing to treat them with contempt rather than love. In his book, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men, Lundy Bancroft states that “An abuser almost never does anything that he himself considers morally unacceptable. He may hide what he does because he thinks other people would disagree with it, but he feels justified inside.”[ii] After working with victims and abusers for nearly two decades, I’d have to say that this assessment is spot-on. Unfortunately, it is not something that most victims would like to admit. It was so much easier for me to believe my husband was abusing me because he was wounded inside, or that he lacked coping skills, than to admit he was making a choice to hurt me. Coming to terms with the truth was almost too much to bear, so I lied to myself until the day somebody placed a tool called the Power and Control Wheel into my hands.

This is part one in a series.  

[i] 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, New International Version

[ii] Bancroft, Lundy, Why Does He do That? (New York, Berkley, 2002), 31.