Abuse Questions

cycle of abuseBoth mainstream media and bloggers are currently focusing attention on domestic violence.  We have several high-profile celebrities involved with domestic violence charges.  We’re seeing strong pushes toward zero tolerance on domestic violence among professional sports, churches, universities, and others.

Overall, these are good things…very good things!  Domestic abuse is far too often overlooked, neglected, minimized, and even denied.

Yet, this renewed public emphasis also brings fresh questions…questions with no clearcut answers.  And I’d like to hear from those of you who have dealt with abuse…either personally or professionally…either as a target of abuse or as an advocate for those who have been abused.

One concern is use of the term domestic violence coupled with emphasis on high-profile physical abuse cases.  While I’m glad we’re not missing the opportunity to focus on this important area and to lobby for changes in policy, I’m also concerned we may be focusing too much on the extremes.

In most domestic abuse cases, the abuse target is slow to define the treatment as abusive.  There is some level of denial involved…an unwillingness to believe that the object of their love who has sworn sacred vows to love, honor, cherish and protect, could truly be so calloused as to intentionally inflict harm.  And the abuser plays on this doubt…playing mind games and offering false apologies and lavish gifts…all for the purpose of both maintaining control and planting self-doubt and confusion in the target’s mind.

There are many forms of abuse besides physical violence.  I’m concerned that use of the term domestic violence coupled with recent focus on high-profile physical violence cases may play into the abuser’s mind-games, making it more difficult for an abuse target to clearly recognize and define the abuse.  Already, abuse targets are likely to minimize the abuse saying things like, “Well at least he hasn’t beat me up.”  Will the current focus on high-profile physical violence increase this trend?

I don’t have a solution for this…but it’s a concern.  What do you think?

Then, there’s the renewed emphasis on male accountability…to see abuse not as something to be addressed by the target but by the abuser.  Some advocates are challenging us to stop asking “Why did she stay?” (which is seen as another form of victim blaming) and instead ask “Why does he believe it is okay for him to abuse her?” (which appropriately assigns responsibility to the abuser).

I totally get this.  It makes a lot of sense.  Don’t question motives of abuse targets…rather question motives of abusers.  Instead of trying to correct behavior in victims, focus on correcting behavior of perpetrators…or potential perpetrators.

I absolutely do not want to add to the heavy burden of shame or blame that an abuse target likely already bears…and is working toward shedding!  And, yes, I understand how easily questions can be asked in a pointed blaming manner, as though a target of abuse is at fault for their own abuse…and all too often this does happen.

And yet, if we zoom in from the big picture of the need for societal change to focus on the individual…the reality is that abusers rarely change…and there will always be abusers.  If our only solution is to change the mindset of the abuser, that’s not a solution that really helps the individual abuse target.  Moreover, it keeps the abuser in the driver’s seat…which is exactly where he wants to be…all progress hinges on his willingness to change…which he is incredibly skilled at faking yet completely unwilling to do.

Yes, from a broader societal long-term planning standpoint, these are worthy goals.  But what the abuse target needs, right now, is some way to regain control of their life…to stop the abuse.  And more often than not, the only way to stop the abuse is to leave the relationship.

When an abuse target begins to recognize the abuse for what it is and to take steps to leave, it is incredibly powerful.  They are no longer at the abuser’s mercy, trapped in the abuser’s mind games.  They are able to make their own choices and act on those choices.  They cease to be a victim and become a survivor.

So, exploring why people don’t leave sooner is important. We need to help overcome the obstacles keeping people in abusive relationships.

One blogger friend recently challenged her readers with the question “Why did you stay?” asserting there is no question more critical to helping people escape abusive relationships.

What do you think?  Is the question “Why did you stay?” a powerful tool for helping others escape abusive relationships?  Or is it yet another form of victim blaming?  Or does it depend on the context in which the question is asked?

Another concern with the renewed focus on male accountability is the specific focus on female abuse by male abusers.  Yes, I understand the overwhelming statistics of male aggression in domestic violence cases.  Yes, I also understand how often the issue of male abuse by female abusers is used by male abusers to deflect blame and redirect attention.  I absolutely get the important need to educate and teach men that real manhood does not include arrogant macho agressiveness…that Jesus Christ and His humility are the true model of true manhood.

Yet, it is also important to not overlook the substantial numbers of men who are abused by their wives.  This topic is especially close to my heart, because in a prior marriage, I was one of those abused men.  I understand the sense of shame and embarrassment in admitting to being an abused husband.  I understand how both the church and society at large tend to instinctively ignore abused husbands, believing the solution is to simply ‘man-up.’

Recent studies indicate that husband abuse is much more prevalent than previously believed and even more under-reported than wife abuse…which means it is almost never reported.  Moreover, since husband abuse is less likely to manifest as physical violence, it is also less likely to be taken seriously when it is reported.

While I love the renewed focus on male accountability, I am concerned that it leaves out a large sector of abused men in need of help and encouragement.

Again, I have no easy answers…but would like to know…what do you think?

I’m excited about recent positive changes, but are we unintentionally neglecting other important areas of abuse?


[Linked to Messy Marriage, Unforced Rythms, Wellspring ]



21 thoughts on “Abuse Questions

  1. Great post, Joe.

    Three thoughts –

    1) The “why didn’t you leave?” question is so unfair…many women in the Christian community are shamed into staying through the misuse of Malachi 2 and other “sound bites” taken out of context. You’ve pointed this out before, and I think it can be linked to…

    2) Spiritual abuse. A lot of pastors and spouses seek to promote their own agendas through Bible Bullying, using a good grounding in the mechanics of the Word which totally misses the meaning. They essentially subvert the Word to shout down those who might disagree with them. It’s a pernicious problem One example I see a lot is the use of Isaiah 64, which they claim says our good deeds are merely filthy rags in God’s eyes. It destroys both hope and motivation….and it’s wrong. In its context, the passage is comparative, and merely points our how much better God’s ‘good’ is, since it;s animated by divinity. The intent in this kind of misuse is to ensure docility and destroy self-confidence. It’s not in keeping with the Jesus of the Gospels…He who said that if one visits the sick, and the destitute, and the imprisoned one does it for Him. It’s internally inconsistent to add the footnote that “of course, it’s still just filthy rags”.

    3) We have to look at areas in which we can be perilously close to being abusive, ourselves. Whenever we put someone down, in public or in private, or deliver a cutting ‘zinger’, we’ve crossed the line into an abusive mindset. When we yell at a spouse or child to give vent to our own feelings…we’ve abused them. This doesn’t let anyone off the hook in a “we’re all sinners anyway” paradigm, but the knowledge of whence comes abuse can and should be used to sharpen our opposition to it, and to help develop strategies for dealing with it, including helping to find ways for people to leave abusive relationships without destroying their lives through lack of resources to fall back on when on their own. The darkness that lurks in the heart of each of us can be used as contrast to intensify the light of compassion.

    Abuse feeds on itself, and begets itself. To stop the cycle we need to eliminate tolerance in our society, in our churches, in our schools, and in our own hearts.

    • “The ‘why didn’t you leave?’ question is so unfair…”

      I completely agree, when used to blame or shame. And, yes, I have actually heard of situations exactly as you describe…where the same pastor who told an abused woman she could not divorce her abuser later used the ‘then why didn’t you leave?’ accusation to minimize her abuse. This is nothing short of spiritual abuse, as you pointed out.

      Yet, when used for the purpose of exposing false beliefs which keep us in bondage to abuse, I think this can be a very powerful tool…not to be asked of someone still under the influence of abuse, but for those who have escaped and had time to heal to voluntarily discuss, for the purpose of helping others.

      I especially like your last paragraph:

      “Abuse feeds on itself, and begets itself. To stop the cycle we need to eliminate tolerance in our society, in our churches, in our schools, and in our own hearts.”

      A truly worthy goal…both personally and socially!

      Thank you, Andrew, for sharing this perspective!

    • Andrew, I’m a survivor who has done the trail of helplessness, to anger, to loss of trust, to rage, to forgivess, and find myself now living in your number 3.

      This is PERFECT: “Abuse feeds on itself, and begets itself. To stop the cycle we need to eliminate tolerance in our society, in our churches, in our schools, and in our own hearts.”

      I see the cultural approval of “zingers” you describe in the way we choose debate (over/under-win/lose – enraging, closing) to “prove” our point rather than sharing information (us for us, expanding). Which divides, diverts and makes sharing information about abuse and violence harder by far. It’s hard for me to avoid my own anger in response. Social safety on all levels is key to health, long life, and non-violence. And non-violence everywhere begins with non-violence within me.

      I find people don’t like to be told…well, pretty much anything. And they don’t like to see them selves as abusers (just like the all-out batterers don’t see themselves that way). But as we discuss ideas in non-threatening settings…a bible study, a social group, coffee with a friend – just identifying what we see around us plants the idea, which is liberating, and will be spread quietly, freely. It seems too small, but is a little part of the solution that requires no organization or plan – just kind friends calling out the many violences that seem normal to us, as we see them, explaining another side, suggesting another view. Somehow, I suspect you’re already doing that! 🙂

      I find your comment encouraging. Thanks for offsetting some of that violence out there with your wise insights.

  2. Thank you so much for speaking out on these issues. I totally agree with the points in your post. It took my sister and I decades to figure out what “abuse” means. We probably don’t have it figured out yet. I had the impression that of a bone isn’t broken, it can’t be abuse.

    Also, thank you for speaking up as an abused man.

    I am struggling a lot because I grew up in an abusive home. My mom has been abused for more than 40 years. My father was (is) abusive to her, me and my sister. I reckon my sister and I will never be “quite right.” They are coming to visit my grandmother this week. A few years ago, I made a rule that my dad can’t stay at my house. This time I asked that he not come to my house. I need to be in neutral places like my grandma’s nursing home where I can leave if things go south. My dad was very abusive last time I saw him. This was perhaps a year or two ago. He pulled my hair, physically restrained me and verbally and emotionally abused me.

    My conundrum is that it seems increasingly likely that my mother will never leave my father. I want to keep a relationship with her, but it is hard because she can’t talk to me with him around. If she’s coming home from work (yes, I know she shouldn’t talk and drive), she says “I’m in the driveway, I’d better go, he’s coming outside.” Click.

    The trickiest thing is that she seems hellbent on making me reconcile with him. This is not helpful to me. The other day, he tried to call me several times. I swallowed my feelings and woke up with a migraine the next morning. Then, at work, I broke into hives, which has never happened to me before. I have lifelong mental and physical health issues from growing up with him. How then to respond when my mom wants me to go to dinner and have him over like nothing happened? Privately, I know he must give her grief when I don’t act like a “good” daughter. Also, I don’t want to leave her alone in his clutches. I will see them tomorrow, and I have been sick for weeks. Even now, my stomach aches.

    I guess I’m telling you all this because you have been an abused spouse and may be able to give insight. By the way, my parents are in their 60’s and I am almost 40. In a way, I am one of the people who wishes they could ask, “Why do you stay?” She has lived a life of sorrow and developed a stress-related heart condition. On a couple of occasions, I sincerely believe he came close to killing her.

    And why does she want me to reconcile with him?

    • “Why does she stay?” and “Why does she want me to reconcile with him?”

      As you already know, there are many, many reasons…reasons as varied as the individual personalities of the people involved.

      For myself, and many others, a major factor was religious beliefs…beliefs I once thought were biblical but now recognize as being unbiblical and far from God’s heart of grace and redemption. This was a big enough factor in my staying for me to have now written a book on the topic, in the hope of helping others escape the Divorce Mythology: http://www.amazon.com/You-Believer-been-through-Divorce/dp/1463767161/

      Usually, though, the reasons for staying (and pushing others to reconcile) include unrealistic hopefulness and an unwillingness to face the reality of having invested so much time and emotion in a relationship with someone so treacherous. At some point, this thinking and behavior becomes enabling to the abuse and the abuser.

      Lindsey, you are in a very difficult situation. My best advice would be to draw very clear boundaries then faithfully defend those boundaries. The boundaries will likely include having to tell your mother that you cannot and will not meet with your abuser, and that she must respect this if she wants to continue having a relationship with you.

      If you haven’t yet found wise counsel, it would be a good idea to seek someone out. The abuse hotline might be a good place to start, if you don’t know good counselors in your area. Also, be a little guarded toward christian counselors…many don’t understand abuse and tend to be predisposed toward unwisely advising reconciliation. In my opinion, any christian counselor who cannot wholeheartedly agree that divorce is sometimes God’s perfect will for some situations has no business counseling anyone in regard to anything involving abuse.

      I’m praying for you this morning, Lindsey, that God will bless you, keep you, comfort you, and give you insight and wisdom in dealing with your mother and father.

      • Joe, Thank you so much for your reply. The kindness and thoughtfulness with which you answered me really brought tears to my eyes. I think what you say makes a lot of sense. I will keep it in mind. I met with a counselor tonight before I saw my family. I made an appointment to see her again in two weeks.

        • Good! I’m glad you’re meeting with a counselor.

          Leaving abuse is a long difficult journey, full of sorrow. But it is so rewarding in the end…and God is faithful through it all.

          He is truly our Shepherd, who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.

  3. Hi Joe,
    I wanted to let you know that SheLoves magazine (a Christian online magazine) is running a “Stop the Silence” initiative where it shares the stories of victims of abuse in an effort to create dialogue – you might find the stories there to be insightful – they explore a broad range of forms of abuse. (http://shelovesmagazine.com/category/stop-the-silence-initiative/).

    People who have been abused abuse. Abuse can be both passive and active and so subtle that it can take a lifetime of reflection to understand. I believe two reasons a lot of people stay are 1. love – they have a natural need for love (parent/child or between spouses) yet their concept of what love should look like is twisted in some way. This is where coming to know the love of God and others who love as God does can be so freeing – suddenly the victim has words for what is wrong in the relationship and sees the possibility of an alternative. 2. They don’t have adequate support or don’t believe they’re strong enough to make the change. What a lot of people don’t realize is the kind of strength it takes to stay in an abusive relationship – these people are very strong, but their strength is aimed at something they cannot fix, so they consistently feel weak.

    Anyway, there are some thoughts. Thanks so much for linking, Joe, with Unforced Rhythms.

    • Thank you, Kelly! I’ll check out the link.

      Yes, I have found, as you stated, most abuse survivors are very strong people. We don’t usually stay because of weakness…it is more often a misdirected sense of faith, loyalty, or duty…

      Thanks for sharing!

  4. Joe,

    This is a wonderful discussion on a much-needed topic. Thank you for your bravery in coming forward. I stood by as a teen/young adult and watched as my parents tried to help my sister get out of an abusive relationship. I just could not understand it being so young. This discussion will be very helpful. Thanks for starting it.

    • Thank you, Kim, for stopping by and sharing in the discussion!

      That is so hard seeing someone you love trapped in an abusive relationship…such a feeling of helplessness.

      For those close enough to see and recognize the abuse, it is much easier to see clearly than for those trapped in the deception of abuse.

  5. Thank you for the pingback, Joe. I am always impressed by the thoughtfulness and kindness of your posts and honored to be included.

    Yes, I think the question “why does he/she stay” continues to be important, when asked by those trying to put workable options in place to create options to leave if necessary. The question remains an insulting and dangerous diversion when asked carelessly of the victim by those who don’t really care to hear the answers. I personally ask it because I want to understand why violence continues, and it is a legitimate piece of the puzzle.

    I’m glad there are people addressing different aspects of violence issues, including the less understood/reported male abuse by females, same sex relationships. Whatever our biases and our knowledge or lack of about another person’s situation, there are always real, dear, hurting people still living abuse – so any and all helps are worthwhile. If an area is neglected, those need to speak up and others need to listen. I’m listening to and learning from you as you speak your experience into my awareness. I have a beloved cousin who is and has been abused by his spouse for many years. Days ago I observed a heavier than usual dose, set down a pitcher too hard and went into the bathroom for 10 minutes to compose myself – he is handling it as he chooses, we talked about both our situations in 2000, before my divorce. I don’t know what to do, but suspect he has it under control. Which is probably what people thought about me when I so desperately needed them to speak up. Now I’m on the other side wondering what will hurt vs help. Suggestions? What I do is let him know how much I admire him for the smart, true, great man he is, and my favorite cousin.

    Have you read, Unclenching Our Fists, by Sara Elinoff Acker?

    Thank you Joe for another thoughtful post.

    • Oh, Diane…that is SO hard…seeing someone we love being abused in an important relationship and not knowing what to do about it…

      Respecting their choices is an important part, I think. Openly discussing the situation in a respectful manner, as you’ve indicated…and, yes, affirming them at every opportunity. As you know, people living with abuse are usually much in need of affirmation.

      There are those times, though, when it also makes sense to step in…to defend our loved one to their abuser…to speak up and let them know it’s not okay to treat my beloved friend like that and I won’t tolerate it while I’m around.

      I wish I had easier answers…it’s something I prayerfully struggle with myself.

      I’m praying for you, this morning, that God will give you insight and wisdom in how best to demonstrate His heart of love and redemption toward your cousin.

  6. A very good question, Joe. I imagine it’s not one most of us have thought about, but you pose a very valid point.

    It would seem like women are afraid to admit the abuse they suffer, and men are ashamed to. Definitely a quandary for either.

    My take on the whole topic of domestic abuse is to focus on education. We need to continue educating children and adults on what is abusive behavior.

    It’s a daunting job, though, because the hope of relationship with the abuser is often so strong it overrides logic and safety.

    • “It would seem like women are afraid to admit the abuse they suffer, and men are ashamed to.”

      An interesting observation, Denise! I’ll have to contemplate this some more.

      Thanks for sharing this perspective!

  7. Thank you for discussing this topic. We ask, “Why did you stay?” because if you have no experience with it (and I don’t), it’s unfathomable. But to the victim it probably sounds like, “What’s wrong with you? Why did you let that happen to you?” A more useful question might be, “How could we have helped?” I don’t know. But there are a lot of moving stories with the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft that can maybe give us some insight, and help us to be better helpers. Thanks again.

    • “A more useful question might be, ‘How could we have helped?'”

      Yes…or “How can I help?” or even, “What’s keeping you from leaving and how can I help?”

      It’s not an easy thing. Even when the solution may look simple from an outside perspective, it is far from simple for those in the situation…it’s heart-breaking.

      And made more confusing by the fact that sometimes the people asking “Why did you stay?” are the same people who have previously (mistakenly) said, “Divorce is not an option for a Christian.”

      But, yes, I think it is largely a matter of how the question is asked…and whether the asker seems like they really want to understand.

      Thank you, Susan!

  8. It does seem to be such an undefined territory, Joe, especially to the one being abused. I don’t know much about abuse, but I do know that it becomes the culture in a marriage or relationship, making it so very hard for the spouse/victim to recognize it. I’m so glad you’re joining the voice to bring more attention and clarity to this subject. I know that it has been a personal journey for you as well. Thanks so much for informing us on such an important subject.

    • “…it becomes the culture in a marriage or relationship, making it so very hard for the spouse/victim to recognize it.”

      An astute observation, Beth!

      And yes…it is very deceptive and very blinding.

      The person being abused is often predisposed to see it as something other than abuse…and those outside the relationship often know too little of the circumstances to even realize what is going on…

      Thank you, Beth!

  9. Thank you for being sensitive in asking, “Why did you stay?”

    I stayed because no one told me I could leave.

    I was a good girl and married to a preacher. In all the sermons I heard on submission, no one told me what submission was NOT. In the “umbrella of authority” charts, there was no exception for when your “umbrella” was abusing you. There was no definition of abuse other than bruises or broken bones. No one said that though our bodies “belonged to each other” that I still had the right to say “no.”

    Because of all the teachings against remarriage, I understood their message to be that divorce was a change in my state of being, not just an event. I would have been used, tainted, unforgiven. I couldn’t live like that. I understood that my God cared more about my marital status than in my well-being–at least, that was true of the God of patriarchy. But we never called it “patriarchy.” We called it “Bible-believing,” or occasionally “fundamental” though never actually defining ourselves as “fundamentalists.”

    Being divorced would have meant that I would not only lose the provision and status of marriage, but that I would never be able to fulfill my role, my Christian calling, as a “wife and mother.” I would have lost everything.

    I stayed because I was taught that my only value as a woman was in being married to a man, that my highest ministry could only be as “wife of (pastor/missionary/ect.),” and that “God hates divorce.”

    I stayed because of careless, toxic theology.

    • Misty,

      My heart breaks as I read your comment…and yet it is also filled with joy…joy that you now recognize the toxic theology for the deceptive lie it is.

      I love how you’ve told your story. How you started with, “I stayed because no one told me I could leave.” How you ended with, “I stayed because of careless, toxic theology.” And how you filled in the details in between.

      What a summary! “I stayed because of careless, toxic theology…and because nobody told me I could leave.”

      I guess it also summarizes what I’ve come to see as my role…to tell people, “It’s okay to leave!”

      Divorce is not sin. God does not hate divorce. God does not hate His children who have divorced.

      God hates treacherous abuse. God hates unrepentant violation of covenant vows. God hates His beloved children being abused and enslaved.

      And for anyone in that situation, God wants you to leave! And He will walk with you through the divorce.

      Thank you for sharing this part of your story…such a clear statement of why you stayed.

      Blessings to you!
      joe recently posted…God of DivorceMy Profile

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