Niamh approached Marion during the women’s event ministry time. She spoke tentatively about her husband’s abusive behavior and Marion responded, ‘What you need to do is put a little love note in your husband’s pocket every morning before he goes to work. That will sort things out.’ Then she began to pray.
A LITTLE LOVE NOTE?! What?! Niamh’s husband was abusing her. Any behavior or words that demean and degrade another human being, making them feel “less than”, is abusive. A little love note was not going to stop him. Niamh eventually left her husband, and Marion’s well-meaning advice made Niamh mistrustful of churches for years. Unknowingly, this type of advice sends the message to the abused woman that she is the problem.
Research has found that ‘abused Christian women are more likely to remain with or return to unsafe [partners], citing religious beliefs to support avoidance of “family break-ups” despite abuse’. Women and children who are subjected to abuse by men need supportive churches.
In supporting someone who has been subjected to abuse, I suggest a six-step system.
- Ensure safety.
- Empower (don’t rescue).
- Understand your limitations.
- Explain Resources
Believe, Believe, Believe
Disclosure is always gradual; the woman will start with the tip of the iceberg to test how we handle the ‘least worst’ details. Do we believe her? Do we look shocked? Are we safe? Disclosure is often accidental. Claire bumped into her church friend June after her partner
Sam had locked her out. She was crying. She didn’t intend June to know. How would June respond? Would she be open and believing or minimize the abuser’s behavior? By siding with the woman, we undermine the abuser’s belief that no one will believe his partner.
Our belief and validation weaken his narrative. If the abuser is a church leader or holds a position of authority, it is even more important to believe his partner. In disclosing his abuse, she has probably overcome more barriers. You may feel uncomfortable about this, concerned about assigning blame with only one person’s perspective. However, the rate of false disclosure for abuse is lower than for other crimes. The shame and pain are often so great that women do not disclose at all.
A woman might discount the risk her abusive partner poses to her as a result of his minimization tactics or her coping strategy of self-blame. It is almost impossible to function psychologically while accepting the full risk posed by an abusive partner. If a woman is telling us that she is worried her partner is going to kill or seriously harm her, we should take this extremely seriously.
Within my work, I have identified three risk indicators.
- Power differential
This occurs when the abuser’s status gives him more power than his partner, including the abuser being significantly older than his partner. Or, the abuser having a powerful job or being from a wealthy or upper-class family, and/or the abuser being a community leader.
- Speed of relationship
This is relevant when the relationship has moved extremely quickly to cohabiting, getting engaged/married, having children, etc.
- Disregard for consequences
When an abuser seems unperturbed by the consequences of his behavior (injunctions, criminal charges, prison), he poses an extreme risk to his partner and children.
Regardless of how many of these risk indicators are present in an abuser’s behavior and choices, he is always a risk to his partner, ex-partner and children. There is no such thing as a ‘low-risk’ abuser.
Empower (Don’t Rescue)
When someone discloses abuse to us, we may dedicate ourselves to fixing the woman’s life by using all our best rhetorical skills we try and convince her to leave him. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I mentioned to my family that Craig was seeing another woman. They told me to ring him and force an ultimatum: choose me or I would kick him out. He refused to choose me. As my family helped me to pack his possessions into bags, they encouraged me,‘This is it, right?’ I nodded, too tired and miserable to muster any certainty. Days later he was back in the house. I stopped telling my family about his behavior after that. I knew I’d only let them down by taking him back. When we are supporting someone, we need to do the opposite, not just say the opposite, to the abuser.
If the abuser demands that she stay with him and we demand that she leave him, we are doing the same as the abuser even as we are saying the opposite. We cannot make someone leave an abuser. We can only seek to open her eyes to the abuse while undermining the abuser’s intentions.
While the abuser distorts his partner’s reality, we can present her with the truth: she is valuable and important, his behavior is not her fault, she matters. Reminding her of the hopes and dreams she had for the future before he squashed them, we can build her confidence and show her that she is competent and capable. Where he tires her out, we can provide opportunities for sleep and rest, offering to babysit her children and supporting her as a parent. We can cook her a nutritious meal and invite her round to have a night of fun.
If he leaves her feeling unsafe and scared, we can welcome her into our home and let her know she has a safe place to come to whenever she is able. If he fills her with shame and disgust; we can tell her she is precious to us. Remaining unshockable if she tells us what he has done, we can honor her and show her she is worth loving.
When he seeks to alienate her from us, we can continue to visit her no matter how rude he is to us. If the only thing we do is maintain a relationship with her regardless of what he does, that might be the lifeline she needs. Craig tried to alienate me from all my friends. A couple of them stuck around, particularly my wonderful friend Lora Dora. She would always visit. Though I learned later that she hated him, she never said anything to me. She didn’t allow him to undermine our friendship and would spend time with me and my daughter no matter what was going on. She remained stable and kind throughout, never treating me as fragile – she was simply present. And I love her for that.
When he tries to convince his partner that he has changed, we can gently remind her that he’s tried before and nothing is different. We can be a safe place for her when the abuser smashes the house up or hurts her, without getting enraged if she returns to him days later. He may be constantly taking from her, but we can reduce our expectations of her, simply remaining available.
An abuser shrinks her world so that she feels she has no choices; we can’t make her leave, but we can show her that the world is bigger than he has made it and that she does have choices. We empower someone by enabling her to have access to all the information before making a decision. We may want to rage about how much of a jerk he is, but that is about us getting what we need. Curiosity is a helpful tool within this. It’s hugely unhelpful to be negative about her partner, but we can utilize curiosity in gently questioning his intentions.
This model of empowerment rather than rescue can be extremely difficult. We need a support network to lean into when things get really difficult. Someone who is being subjected to abuse is often unable to meet her own needs; she’s certainly not going to be able to meet our needs. We need to look after ourselves and avoid getting caught up in the cycle of abuse. One of the ways to do this is by changing our measure of success.
Most people identify ‘success’ for a woman with an abusive partner as her leaving him. Rather than seeing success as leaving, we can begin to see the incremental differences in a woman’s life. If she starts recognizing her partner’s abusive behavior, that’s a success. When she saves the number for a local service in her phone, that’s a success. Getting a secret pay-as-you-go phone that her partner doesn’t know about, building her confidence, spending time with friends, starting counseling, getting a job, telling us more about her partner’s behavior, setting herself goals – all of these are successes! She may or may not leave him, but each tiny step towards freedom can be celebrated.
It is important for you to understand your limitations. People presume that because they know abuse is wrong, they will automatically make good choices in supporting those being subjected to abuse. That is incorrect. If you have not had prolonged specialist training or experience in understanding abuse, you will need to seek the advice and support of those who have.
If you recognize the abusive behaviors described in men you know, or if you see the impact of an abuser on the lives of women you know, it is important to seek professional advice. What the world does not need is more people making hasty uninformed decisions.
It is extraordinarily difficult for an abused woman or the church to navigate domestic abuse laws and resources. Gaining literacy about the different services will help the church to signpost available resources more effectively. It is imperative that you find out the details of your local domestic abuse shelter. Explore domestic abuse service websites and familiarize yourself with their work. Make time to call them and ask the following three questions.
- What will happen if someone discloses abuse to me and I refer her to your service?
- Can you send me posters and leaflets advertising your service that I can put up in my church or workplace?
- What can I and/or my church do to support your work?
If a woman tells you that her husband is abusing her and you give her the number for the local domestic abuse service, she may phone them. However, if you are able to tell her the names of some of the workers at the service and what sort of resources they have available, that will give her much more confidence in contacting them. They may have waiting lists or only answer the phones at certain times of the day.
It might take all of her strength to phone them, and if nobody answers or if their waiting list is two months long she may never bother calling them again. If you can temper her expectations by telling her about their limitations, she is much more likely to phone them when they’re available and not be put off by the long waiting list. You can make the promotional literature available in your church. Placing posters in women’s toilet cubicles may be helpful, as is putting materials on your noticeboard. Making people aware that these services exist may lead someone to take action, regardless of whether you ever know about it.
Think about what has been most useful to you. What has been difficult to process? Has anything felt unacceptable to you? Why is that? How can you move to a new understanding? Take some time to pray if that’s something that is helpful to you.
This extract is taken from Out Of Control by Natalie Collins published by SPCK 2019, used by permission. For more information please go to: https://spckpublishing.co.uk/out-of-control.