What Christians Should Know About Domestic Violence Survivors
Defining Domestic Violence
Domestic violence, also known as intimate partner violence, can take many forms such as verbal abuse, sexual molestation and assault, financial control, manipulation, exploitation, stalking, and isolation. Women may batter their husbands, and domestic violence can also occur in same-sex relationships.
According to the USA’s Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey:
- Approximately one in four women and nearly one in 10 men in the USA have experienced stalking, or physical or sexual violence
- Over 43 million women and 38 million men have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their lifeline
- Approximately 11 million women and 5 million men in these groups reported that the violence began before the age of 18.
Intimate Partner Violence and the Church
A 10-year study of the support Christian clergy provided for survivors of domestic violence found that both church members and clergy need to more education in counseling victims and that clergy should be speaking more about this issue from the pulpit.
It has been my experience that some Christians deny that abuse exists, let alone happens to people they know. When confronted with reality, some Christians may struggle to accept it and are overwhelmed emotionally.
Perpetrators are good at appearing holier than thou and hiding their harmful behavior. Christians who believe the mask may doubt the victim or do not want to get involved. Other Christians may feel embarrassed, fearful, or incapable of handling knowing what is going on. Friends or family may feel torn between the parties involved because they have good relationships with both of them.
Reasons Survivors Stay
Denial and self-blame
Victims do not want to believe that the partners who were supposed to love care for them are actually hurting them. They may blame themselves for the abuse.
Victims may stay because they genuinely love their abusers. Some people who experience ongoing abuse develop a strong emotional bond with their perpetrators. Abusers will misuse emotions such as fear and their victims’ desire to be loved to entangle their victims into a strong attachment. Mental health professionals call this "trauma bonding."
Misinterpretation of scripture
Many victims find strength in their religious beliefs and endure abuse at all costs to keep a marriage or family together. Victims may feel that leaving will compromise their faith. Some so-called “Christian” husbands will misinterpret scriptures such as those about wives submitting to their husbands to serve their own selfish desires (1 Corinthians 7:4, Ephesians 5:22-24). Perpetrators ignore scriptures that instruct husbands to love their wives as much as they love themselves and the same way Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25, 28).
Unfortunately, some pastors and Christian leaders believe myths marriage and intimate partner violence. They uphold the “sanctity of marriage” above all else. Some Christians view divorce as sin, shaming the victim to stay. Perpetrators can put on a great show of repenting, accepting Christ into their lives, and submitting to counseling that can deceive pastors and counselors. In reality, the perpetrators are continuing to harm their partners.
In the book, , author Jocelyn Anderson says: "Abuse among Christians often creates a cruel catch-22, as many evangelicals view recommending separation or divorce as unscriptural, but then view the battered/abused woman with contempt for staying in the situation and tolerating the abuse." Female victims may be told that their role is to submit to their husbands and be patient. I have even heard of pastors saying that the victims will get a reward in heaven if they endure the mistreatment. Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence
The burden of responsibility for fixing the situation falls on the victims. They are told by Christian leaders to be good, obedient, and submissive wives. If the victims keep a clean house, get meals ready on time, and keep the kids in line, all of the abuse would go away. They are at fault if their husbands lash out at them.
Some Christian leaders do not understand the difference between forgiveness and accountability. Victims are told to forgive and forget what was done to them. Forgiveness is beneficial but it may take a long time for victims to let go of their anger and emotional baggage. Forgiveness, however, does not mean letting someone off the hook. It is a criminal offense to batter someone. On a moral level, perpetrators are breaking God’s laws and should face the consequences for their actions. They are accountable for what they do.
Fear can take many forms for a survivor of abuse. Survivors who leave their partners face a terrifying unknown future. They have legitimate concerns such as:
- The perpetrator will harm or kill them
- Having to raise their children as a single parent or may lose custody of their children
- Being afraid that they cannot manage and survive on their own
- Being alone and unwanted by potential partners
- Not having financial support and being unable to find a job
- The stigma and shame of having a failed marriage and divorce
Pride and Shame
Some victims do not want to admit they missed red flags and made a mistake. They are afraid of being labeled as a failure. They do not want to admit they were being abused.
Hope the abuser will change
When perpetrators first court their victims, they “love bomb” them with affection and attention. They may appear to be caring at first. After they verbally or physically attack their partners, abusers may seem to be genuinely sorry and willing to make amends. The victims hold onto the hope that the perpetrators will change and stop the abuse.
This hope may be one reason that battered people return to their abusive partners again and again. There are rare cases where abusers repent and change, often with the help of counseling, but most continue their harmful behavior.
Challenges Facing Survivors
American crime reports suggest that an intimate partner killed approximately one in six homicide victims, and nearly half of female homicide victims are killed by former male partners. Many victims are also threatened and stalked.
Perpetrators use verbal abuse such as put-downs or ridicule to keep their partners in line. They convince their victims that no other man or woman will want them. Abusers convince their victims that the victims are incompetent and cannot manage life without them. Perpetrators isolate their victims so victims have no one in their lives who contradict the abusers’ negative messages.
Lack of life skills and financial dependence
Some abusers try to prevent their victims from gaining the skills needed to break free from their control. For example, husbands may forbid their wives from pursuing higher education or working outside the home.
Poor physical and emotional health
Victims of intimate partner violence suffer more concussions than the general population. They are at a higher risk for serious or chronic health conditions such as heart problems, and bone, digestive, muscle, reproductive, and nervous system disorders. Mental health problems may occur such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Ways to Support Survivors of Intimate Partner Violence
There are several steps we as Christians should take to support survivors of abuse.
Do not judge their choices
“Why did the victims stay?” we may ask. I know that this is a question that always pops up. We should not be asking this. This question creates stigma. It infers that the person “asked for it” or was too weak to break free. Instead of judging them, we should admire survivors for having the courage to leave a dangerous relationship, often at great personal cost to them.
Accept them as they are
When survivors leave abusive relationships, they go through challenging changes and emotions. They will experience grief where they mourn the good times in the relationship. It will take time for victims to redefine who they are and develop a plan for their lives.
Encourage them and build them up
Victims may have dealt with friends and family who judged and condemned them either for staying in the relationship, leaving it, or coming back into the relationship after leaving it. Others may refuse to believe that the partners are abusers or blame the victims for the situation.
Survivors need our encouragement and support (Romans 12:8, 2 Corinthians 13:11, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, 2 Timothy 4:2). Their self-esteem and sense of self-worth must be built up again. If we are not qualified to offer advice, we can give suggestions, share our stories, ask thought-provoking questions.
There are many resources available to people who have been emotionally or physically battered but survivors of domestic violence also need our support. We Christians should make ourselves available to offer a shoulder to cry on and be a non-judgemental support system.
- 10-Year Study of Christian Church Support for Domestic Violence Victims: 2005-2015, National Institute of Health, Zust, Flicek, Moses, Schubert, Timmerman
- Preventing Intimate Partner Violence, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Domestic Violence and Spiritual Abuse: Part 2, Joyful Heart Foundation, Rev. Al Miles
- How to Help a Victim of Domestic Violence, Christian Feminism Today, Dr. Christy Sim
- 19 #WhyIStayed Tweets That Everyone Needs to See, Mic, Jared Keller
- National Statistics, NCADV