We can watch sitcoms or movies and see unhealthy relationships portrayed as exciting or normal. While in the movies the victim of abuse might be rescued by an observant character or take matters into their own hands and kill the abuser in self-defense. I would not recommend anyone in a dangerous situation wait to be rescued or stay in a situation until self-defense is the only option. While not every difficult relation is considered abuse, hopefully this blog will help you understand what is and what isn’t abuse.
You might know an abuser. They could be someone who appears hard working, morally upright, and a good person by those in the outside world. Or maybe it’s the neighbor who doesn’t work and screams at their kids all day. Or maybe it’s not either of those people and is instead the quiet volunteer who attends church and teaches Sunday school classes. The point is you don’t know who is abusive and who is being abused. It’s often one of the best kept secrets in a home.
“Well, they just need to tell someone.”
Abuse can happen so slowly, it doesn’t even seem like it’s abuse to the victim. Progressive abuse happens gradually or in stages; the first time likely doesn’t even register as “abuse”. Usually by the time the victim recognizes it as abuse, a pattern has been established and they find ways to justify the incidents.
Unfortunately, in far too many cases, when a victim of abuse does make a cry for help, they aren’t believed or might be in a situation where they are dependent on the abuser and don’t feel they can leave. They might justify their situation as “not that bad” or think that the humiliation of admitting their situation will be too much to bear.
Abuse can be:
Physical– this is the most common form and results in a felony for the offender in most states. A call to the police will offer a woman in fear of injury help, but it can cost her dearly to make that call. An abused woman has typical spent an extended amount of time with her abuser. Abusers use control as a way to manipulate their victims. She may have developed a form of Stockholm Syndrome and bonded with their partner or she may stay because of a threat to someone she cares about such as her children. Another obstacle is the honeymoon period that occurs after the abuse, it can be a difficult cycle to break because the victim believes the offender did not mean to hurt them, they want to see the abuser become the person they believe they can be and so they often remain in a violent situation. When a person stands in front of you with bruises, broken bones, or worse, then it’s easy to see the abuse and acknowledge that the actions were unjust.
Sexual- Sexual abuse is also a crime so that is also a very well defined form of abuse. A sexually abused child or an adult who is raped, are both considered assault. What about other types of sexual abuse? A person who is forced to commit a sexual act without penetration. A person who is degraded and made to feel less than by using words or actions while in the act of sex. A woman who is forced to have sex with her husband? There are religions that teach a woman’s body belongs to her husband so she must submit to his needs. Even what some perceive to be prostitution is abuse if the victim is unwilling and being forced to service customers, which is considered sex trafficking.
Verbal/Emotional/Psychological- This one of the hardest forms of abuse to explain or prove because words do not leave visible bruises. There are states where this is not even acknowledged as abuse. (Click here to learn more) Here is a list of ways that abuse can be happening and may not be recognized as abuse.
- Controlling your time, space, money, thoughts, or choices
- Monitoring where you go
- Isolating you by not letting you see or talk to others
- Making all of the decisions without your input or consideration of your needs
- Accusing you of flirting, having an affair, or being unfaithful
- Getting angry or resentful when you are successful in a job or hobby
- Intimidation: using fear to control you, including breaking things, punching walls, slamming doors, throwing objects, invading your personal space, or driving in an unsafe manner in an attempt to intimidate you.
- Threatening to hurt you, children, pets, or damage property, especially when things are not going their way
- Demeaning you with frequent put-downs, name-calling, blame, or humiliation
- Saying things that are designed to make you feel “crazy” or “stupid”
- Always being right, never apologizing
- Punishing you with the silent treatment or withholding affection
- Blaming others for their behavior, especially your parents or children
- Denying the behavior or telling you it’s your fault
A one-time incident is not abuse, but repeated behavior (especially over a period of time) without change is something that needs to be considered abuse.
Financial/Economic- Does your partner control all the finances? Do they alone know the passwords to the accounts? If there is not a mutual sharing of information than there is an unbalance in the power and that needs to be addressed so that both parties feel comfortable. Here are some indicators that financial abuse is possible:
- Controls every penny spent in the household, expects an accounting of all money spent
- Takes your money or refuses to give you money for necessary expenses
- Prevents you from working or attending school, instead of financial independence you then feel dependent on them.
- Controlling decisions about purchases
- Monitoring where you go or what you spend money on
Spiritual- Using religious beliefs to justify holding a dominant, authoritarian position over you. Mary Demuth has written a book on spiritual abuse and posted the following list (I’ve edited it for space reasons) on her website:
- Have a distorted view of respect. They forget the simple adage that respect is earned, not granted.
- Demand allegiance as proof of the follower’s allegiance to Christ. It’s either his/her way or no way. And if a follower deviates, he is guilty of deviating from Jesus.
- Believe their way of doing things, thinking theologically, or handling ministry and church is the only correct way. Everyone else is wrong, misguided, or stupidly naive.
- Create a culture of fear and shame. Often there is no grace for someone who fails to live up to the church’s or ministry’s expectation.
- Leaders can’t admit failure, but often search out failure in others and uses that knowledge to hold them in fear and captivity. They often quote scriptures about not touching God’s anointed, or bringing accusations against an elder.
- Often have a charismatic leader at the helm who starts off well, but slips into arrogance, protectionism and pride. Where a leader might start off being personable and interested in others’ issues, he/she eventually withdraws to a small group of “yes people” and isolates from the needs of others.
- Cultivate a dependence on one leader or leaders for spiritual information.
- Demand blind servitude of their followers, but live prestigious, privileged lives. They live aloof from their followers and justify their material extravagance as God’s favor and approval on their ministry.
- Buffer him/herself from criticism by placing people around themselves whose only allegiance is to the leader.
- Places burdens on followers to act a certain way, dress an acceptable way, and have an acceptable lifestyle, but they often demonstrate licentiousness, greed, and uncontrolled addictions behind closed doors.
- Use exclusivity for allegiance. Followers close to the leader or leaders feel like lucky insiders. Fear of losing their special status often impedes insiders from speaking up.
A common thread with each form of abuse is control. The abuser needs to feel in control and the only way they can be assured of it is by keeping their victim in a place of insecurity and fear. Coercive Control is a pattern of behavior that some people — usually but not always men — employ to dominate their partners. Coercive control describes an ongoing and multipronged strategy, with tactics that include manipulation, humiliation, isolation, financial abuse, stalking, gaslighting and sometimes physical or sexual abuse. (New York Times)
To the outsider, each of these individually (except physical abuse) might not raise a red flag, because it would appear that the person might be in a difficult relationship. A difficult relationship is far different than an abusive relationship. A difficult relationship is when you are having a bad day and you act passively aggressive or you curse when you are angry and it hurts your partner’s feelings, but you apologize later. Or your partner repeatedly does something that annoys you, but it’s not bringing about physical pain or making you feel bad about yourself. There are times when criticism is helpful and constructive, we might not like to hear it, but there are times when we need our partner to tell us the truth. The flip side of that situation is when that criticism is being used to hurt on a regular basis or when words are leaving hidden scars. “I’m just being honest” is often a cover for the real intent of retaining dominance in the conversation or in your life.
“The difference, of course, is whether this behavior is so common that it starts to define someone’s character — and the dynamic of the relationship.” (Toxic relationships)
At the end of the day, you don’t know what is happening behind your neighbor’s closed doors. We are not here to pass judgment on someone because they made a decision that we don’t agree with or understand. We are here to live the best possible version of our lives and hopefully, in the end, make a difference in the lives of the people around us. My friend, walk boldly today. You might be the only one who can make a difference in the world around you. Be the light and shine bright as a beacon of hope.
If you are in an abusive relationship or have a reason to fear for your safety, please reach out to the police by calling 911 or talk to someone you trust (a teacher, pastor, friend). If you need prayer, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.