To study psychological trauma is to come face to face both with human vulnerability in the natural world and with the capacity for evil in human nature. To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or “acts of God,” those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim.
But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict. The bystander is forced to take sides. It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.
Trauma and Recovery, by Judith Herman
“Sometimes reality gets turned on its head, so that wrong becomes right and decency becomes cruelty. I have, sadly, known women who experienced this kind of inversion within their church, temple, or mosque. The twisting of reality begins when the woman takes the leap to tell people that her partner rips her to shreds verbally, or that he pushes her around physically, or that he degrades her sexually.
To her shock, some people react as if the source of the ugliness were in her instead of the abusive man. She starts to get whispered about, people stop smiling and stop reaching out to her, and she feels the atmosphere around her turn to disapproval and rejection. And instead of supporting her, the community rallies around the abuser, viewing him as the victim of a vicious, falsely accusing woman.
I hope this never happens to you. But if it does, it becomes deeply important for you to battle against isolation; when a whole community turns on you, you can feel as if you’re suddenly living on the moon. Reach out for help. Try not to internalize the message that you are bad; you’ve done nothing wrong. Your spiritual community should be there for you, and they are the ones who are behaving badly. Fortunately there are spiritual communities that come through for abused women. I hope you are able to find one soon. In the meantime, draw on resources and keep yourself connected.”
Daily Wisdom For Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft
“I believe in positive human sexuality. Sex is a natural and pleasurable part of life as long as both partners feel safe and respected. There is nothing shameful about naked bodies. So why am I so concerned about pornography and its effects? Pornography is a school of sexuality; in fact, it’s the main place Americans get their information about sex (to the tune of $10 billion per year). And what is it teaching us?
“Love and respect are irrelevant to sex, which is just a body function.”
“Women exist for men’s sexual use, without needs or feelings of their own.”
“Women should like whatever practices men want to engage in, no matter how demeaning or depersonalizing.”
“The more women look like little girls or teenagers, the sexier they are; in other words, men should desire sex with underage females.”
My concern is that pornography promotes a kind of sexuality that is exploitative, has violent undertones, and glorifies offending against children. A huge percentage of women have told researchers that they have been pressured by partners into participation in unwanted sexual practices that the man saw in pornography. In short, pornography is the opposite of a sexually liberating force.
You may not share my reactions, so let me zero in on the points that I think matter most in practical terms: If you are bothered by your partner’s use of pornography, you have every right to be. Your objections do not make you uptight, repressed, frigid, or whatever else he may say. And he should never pressure you to do things he has seen in pornography. If you use pornography yourself, explore carefully whether your participation is voluntary and how it is affecting your self-esteem. If you use it together with your partner, take a careful look at how it’s affecting the dynamics of your relationship…. Anything that leaves you feeling demeaned or controlled is the antithesis of true sexuality.”
Daily Wisdom For Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft
“Some men have a powerful ability to extinguish the sexual energy of a relationship. Then they blame the woman for it. The man’s jealousy and possessiveness are often the root of the problem. He wants you to be sexy and attractive, but only for him. So he criticizes you if you go out in public looking good. (“What are you going out dressed like that for? You got the hots for some guy?”) Perhaps he starts to call you degrading names for making yourself alluring. The result is that you feel like you’d better not dress up around him. But later he turns it all around and says that you never make yourself sexy anymore.
You can’t win, because he wants other people to be impressed by how attractive you are, but he doesn’t want them to look at you. He doesn’t want you to dress up, but he wants you to be dressy when he sees you. He doesn’t want you to desire sex if he’s not in the mood, but he wants you to always be in the mood. The reason you can’t make any sense out of all this is that it makes no sense.
For you to feel sexual, you have to feel appealing to him. (In other words, in order to feel attracted you have to feel attractive.) And to feel appealing to him, you have to feel attractive in general—in other words, attractive to other people also. There is simply no way to be attractive to him alone. So when a man wants a woman’s sexuality to exist only for him, he is ensuring that it will fade away. And that’s his fault, not hers.”
Daily Wisdom For Women Involved with Angry and Controlling Men, by Lundy Bancroft
Here are a few action steps you can take.
First of all, and most important, be sure you (and any children under your care) are safe. If you have found yourself repeatedly in physical danger in the past, please private message me and I will try to connect you with some materials and resources that are local to you.
Second, build a network of trusted friends and resources you can reach out to when you need encouragement and support. If you are isolated, consider how you can start making connections again. Churches, support groups, and local domestic violence shelters and advocacy centers might be able to help you find some safe people to connect with. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but the more you can connect with people outside of your marriage, the better.
Third, be realistic. If your relationship is characterized by repeated cycles of calm, rising tension, crisis, and then calm again, you need to recognize that the calm is only part of the cycle. It can be tempting to think the calm period is finally the improvement or resolution you have been waiting for, but in fact, the typical cycle of abuse includes a period of calm. If your partner has followed his abuse of you by saying something like, “I am sorry I treated you that way, but…(fill in the blank: “I’ve told you before that it makes me crazy when you ask me where I was and what I was doing, I love you so much I can’t restrain my jealousy, I have an anger problem, etc., etc.), then he is already justifying his behavior in his own mind, and he will do it again. Take a look at these images of the abuse cycle (HT: Psalm 82 Initiative), and see whether your experience fits into them.
The first image shows how your relationship works. First comes a period of rising tension, next the abusive behavior (which can be violently explosive, or outwardly fairly quiet). He may demean you verbally, tear you down in front of the kids or others, use intimidation, isolate you from help by forbidding you to leave the house or call a friend, or any number of other punishing and coercive behaviors. He will then usually experience a period of remorse, and may apologize to you for his treatment of you. During this period of calm, you’ll likely feel a sense of hope. This is the period of time in which a victim is least likely to take action or reach out for help.
The second image shows how you are likely to describe your relationship to others. It might sound something like this: “Well, he’s normally a really nice guy except for when he gets stressed. I need to do better about not provoking him. He gets angry at me, but usually he repents of it, and then we have a great relationship again.” The third image shows how he talks and thinks about your relationship: “Yeah, we have a great marriage usually. Sometimes when I’m under a lot of pressure and she crosses a line, I react. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t treat her that way. Usually we really have a good relationship, though.”
If this looks familiar, it’s time to be realistic. You are probably stuck in a repeating cycle, and it will get worse over time.
Fourth, take whatever steps you safely can to step out of the cycle. You have probably developed habits of interaction that do one helpful thing and one harmful thing for you. Your habitual interactions with your abusive partner may be helping you to survive safely, but they may also be hurting you by keeping you trapped within his cycle. If you can do it safely without fear of reprisal, find ways to create boundaries that communicate your unwillingness to put up with mistreatment, or to participate in his games. You may need to stop engaging in certain conversations, or to require that they happen via writing or in front of a trusted friend instead of privately and in person. If he uses unsafe driving to hurt or endanger you, you might need to stop riding in the same vehicle with him. If he disrespects you during sex, you may need to withdraw intimacy until he makes a change. A good boundary may involve some level of public exposure, and thus also serve as a consequence (see below). Again, only put boundaries in place if you can do so safely. Many abusive marriages would be unsafe places to try to establish good boundaries, and if that is true of yours, you need to seek more serious help.
And finally (again only if you can do so safely), require your partner to begin working on himself. An abusive person behaves the way he does because his behavior gets him something that he wants. It may be privacy, freedom to be irresponsible, freedom to pursue his own special vices like alcohol or pornography, freedom to coerce sex whenever he wants it, or something else; but whatever it is that he gains by putting you through a cycle of calm-tension-abuse, that is considered to be his core entitlement. Because he is currently getting what he wants, you must not expect him to change until some of his entitlements are taken away. Abusers typically do not change without outside pressure. Change will happen when he becomes too uncomfortable to stay where he is. Some ways of applying pressure are social exposure, such as seeking the assistance of a trusted mentor or pastor or friend, or withdrawal of your services to him (such as the food, clean laundry, freedom from responsibility, and sexual intimacy that you more than likely supply him with right now). Do not begin the process of resistance unless you are confident you can do so safely, but if you can, look for ways to apply pressure, and at the same time, require him to start actively working on his bad habits. If you can find a good Batterer’s Intervention Program locally, that would be ideal. A good program will work intensively over the course of as much as a year, and will focus on teaching him to shed his coercive behaviors and learn responsible ways of interacting with others.
To recap what I’ve said: Most likely, him changing will require two things — one, when external pressures such as exposure, consequences, and the removal of privileges become uncomfortable enough that he is dissatisfied remaining where he is. And two, long-term, serious, self-focused work of the kind you’ll find in these materials.
Knowing how to act within a struggling marriage takes a lot of discernment. Let’s say your husband has just done something that really hurts your feelings. Should you let love cover it, or is it a good time for speaking the truth in love instead? Is this turn-the-other-cheek time, or confront-your-brother time? Should you be suffering in silence, or is it time to be an Abigail, stepping out to save your household from a hard-hearted man’s damaging choices?
If you have sought faith-based counseling, your confusion is likely to be compounded by the fact that the default advice is usually that you should “work on your own part of the problem,” “avoid provoking him to anger,” “return good for evil,” and “trust that God will use your submissive heart to bless and change your husband.” This can be good advice in some circumstances. but it is woefully insufficient for dealing with an actively destructive person.
One really important key to this whole conversation is found in the big picture. We all have to deal with other people’s shortcomings now and then, but there’s a critical difference between a relationship that isn’t everything you had hoped, versus a relationship that actively destroys, subjugates, isolates, limits, and harms. So when I hear from a friend who is really struggling in a difficult marriage, one of the first things I do is try to find out whether she’s stuck in a destructive marriage or just a disappointing one. I’m indebted to Leslie Vernick for this contrast:
“A disappointing relationship is one in which there is a letdown of expectations in a relationship. It’s not what you thought it would be. There isn’t obvious sin, disrespect or indifference, but there isn’t as much romance, talking, sex or connection as you wanted. There may not be as much financial security or extra resources to have fun or live in a bigger home, or there may be a lack of adventure and stimulation that makes the relationship feel stale and boring. Many individuals long for an A+ marriage but feel stuck in a C- marriage. How they handle their disappointment (or not) determines whether the marriage survives or deteriorates into a D- or worse relationship.
A destructive relationship is one in which the personhood of the other is regularly diminished, dismissed, disrespected and demeaned. There is a lack of mutual effort at maintaining and repairing relationship wounds. There is a lack of mutual accountability, but rather one has power over the other either physically, emotionally, financially, mentally, spiritually or all of the above. There is a lack of accountability or responsibility accepted for harm caused to the relationship, and relationship wounds are denied, minimized or blamed on the other.” (from http://www.leslievernick.com/whats-the-difference-between-a-difficult-disappointing-and-destructive-marriage/)
Before you can love an abusive person effectively, you need clarity about the nature of the situation. Here is a tool I’ve found to be very helpful.
Yesterday I received this question from a friend.
“I have noticed in myself that, after being emotionally and psychologically abused for years, in the last six months since I have really fully awakened to it and now have labels and words to match the behavior seen in my abuser…*I* easily lean towards putting him in a non-human category. Almost out of my self preservation, I have gone too far in making him a monster. I’ve read a lot on coming to recognize his bad behavior but it would be awesome to have encouragement on how to view someone who has abused us, without undoing the progress we’ve made, but in terms of healing and not harboring hatred.”
This is such a good question. In her book, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage, Leslie Vernick explores the concept of building our emotional CORE — an acronym representing four qualities of emotional strength and resiliency: Committed to truth and reality, Open to growth, instruction and feedback, Responsible for myself AND Respectful of others without dishonoring myself, and Empathic and compassionate toward others, without enabling others to continue to abuse and disrespect me.
So here is the conundrum my friend expressed above: In order to survive and thrive, people in abusive or destructive relationships have to be able to see and name the truth of their partners’ destructive behavior without coming to view the abusive partner as somehow sub-human. I think this concept is key: When you get in the way of someone’s destructive habits and tendencies, you are doing something that is good for him, not just for yourself. You are acting on his behalf, as well as on your own.
When you name destructive, demeaning, dismissive speech for what it is and decline to participate in those games, you are caring for yourself and also for the person who is hurting you. That’s love.
When you notice that your partner is cutting you off from your support network and you find ways to reach out anyway, you are caring for yourself, but you are also circumventing his bad behavior. That’s love.
When you refuse to drive in the same car with him, because he’s using his erratic driving to threaten or punish you — you’re keeping both of you safe from his poor choices. That’s love.
When you move out, cut off contact, and require that he begin serious work on himself before you will interact with him again, you are taking responsibility for yourself, and you are requiring something better out of him. That’s love.
In Loving Abusers, Part Two, I’ll talk about some practical, concrete steps you can take to love someone who is stuck in abusive patterns of behavior. Meanwhile, I would love to hear from you. Have you found effective ways to care for yourself while loving him?
Read more about Leslie Vernick’s concept of CORE strength, here.
“Evil originates not in the absence of guilt, but in the effort to escape it. It often happens then, that the evil may be recognized by its very disguise. Since the primary motive of the evil is disguise, one of the places evil people are most likely to be found is within the church. Evil people tend to gravitate toward piety for the disguise and concealment it can offer them.”
Quotes drawn originally from M. Scott Peck’s insightful work, People of the Lie. HT: Natalie Klejwa in her article, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire.”
The other day I heard someone put it this way: “Religion will molest you, then accuse you of being bitter about it.” Do you see the double standard? When victims react to being hurt by someone in a church, we treat them as though there’s something’s wrong with them. This is why abusers are so often exonerated. It’s easier to justify letting the abuser off the hook if both parties are “in the wrong.”
From the Relevant Article linked: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/what-not-say-someone-who-has-been-hurt-church
The fact that Israelite women could be given a divorce certificate doesn’t mean that God thinks divorce is a good idea. He designed marriage to last forever—for both the couple’s and the children’s benefit—and the breakup of a marriage is always a disaster. We have learned, though, that we have to distinguish between marriage breakup, which is always wrong, and divorce, which is the legal recognition that a marriage has broken up. Moses’ law did not say that it was acceptable to break up a marriage; it merely prescribed the legal process that was necessary after a breakup had happened. It said that the man couldn’t have his cake and eat it; he couldn’t abandon his wife and expect her to be waiting for him at a later date. Whatever sin causes the marriage to break up, there should be a clean end. Neither partner should hold the other as a prisoner in a marriage that is dead.
Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, by David Instone-Brewer