How to spot partner abuse

I was sitting in a coffee shop with a friend, and she was describing her anxiety. She said she felt like she couldn’t get anything right. No matter what she did, it didn’t seem like enough. She wanted to be a responsible person, a person who was loving and compassionate. But she just couldn’t seem to fulfill those expectations.

I told her that I struggle with the same things. I shared that I’m naturally a perfectionist who holds myself to astronomical standards and beats myself up when I don’t get everything right. I said I’m learning that the Lord created me to be finite and dependent on Him. It’s ok not to be perfect.

Then she started to cry. She said she didn’t know how to accept her imperfections. She wanted to be allowed to be human and finite, but she wasn’t sure she could have a more realistic standard. Something in the way she said it made me wonder. So I asked, “Do you hold yourself to an unrealistic standard, or are you trying to be perfect in order to please someone else?”

Her head went down. She stopped looking me in the eye. The silence dragged from seconds to minutes. I knew she wanted to say something, so I just waited. Finally, with eyes still lowered, she said, “I’ve lost track of all the ways I’m failing. And sometimes I don’t even know I’m failing till he gets home. I don’t remember till it’s too late.”

She’s not anxious because she’s a perfectionist. She’s anxious because she hasn’t followed all of his rules perfectly. She’s in an abusive relationship.

Sometimes partner abuse is hard to spot. It can be subtle. It can develop so slowly that it’s imperceptible to the observer. Many women who are struggling with anxiety are actually staggering under the weight of an abusive partner, but they don’t even know to call it that. To them, it’s just how relationships work. And in the Christian world, it can be even more devastating because partner abuse is happening under the definition of wifely submission.

It’s time for the Church to say some really clear things. Submission never means following someone’s rules to avoid punishment. It never means sacrificing the health and safety of yourself or your children in order to appease someone’s preferences. It never means laying yourself on someone else’s altar. This is not submission. It’s abuse.

In whatever ways we have allowed abuse to continue in the name of submission or humility, we need to repent. We need to learn what to look for and how to get help for those who are suffering at the hands of someone else. Abuse is happening right under our noses, to women and men and children. To the elderly and the disabled. We need some education, and we need boldness to advocate.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline has a great website. That’s where I’ll point you in beginning your education (click HERE). This website defines domestic abuse and gives warning signs to look for. You’ll also find the Power and Control Wheel, a very helpful tool that describes ways in which someone will exert power for selfish gain.

Here’s the Hotline’s list of signs your loved one may be experiencing partner abuse: (https://www.thehotline.org/help/help-for-friends-and-family/)

  • Their partner puts them down in front of other people
  • They are constantly worried about making their partner angry
  • They make excuses for their partner’s behavior
  • Their partner is extremely jealous or possessive
  • They have unexplained marks or injuries
  • They’ve stopped spending time with friends and family
  • They are depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality

Of course, your friend or loved one may not exhibit all these signs, but if you notice even a couple of them, you can ask a few questions to learn more:

  • “I noticed him putting you down, and that bothered me. Does that happen a lot?”
  • “You seem worried about making him mad. Do you feel worried about that often?”
  • “He seems to get jealous easily. Do you see that with him?”
  • “I noticed that bruise. It looks painful. Because I love you, I need to ask – did someone give that to you?”
  • “You seem distant lately, and not because you want to be. I’m wondering if you feel pressured only to be with him, like you’re not allowed to spend time with your friends and family.”
  • “I can tell you’ve been down lately. I want you to know I’m here for you and would love to support you in whatever you’re going through.”

(In these questions, I’m using the female pronoun to describe the abuse victim, but keep in mind that abuse happens to both men and women. No one is exempt from the possibility of being victimized.)

If you ask a few of these questions and sense that the person’s answers may indicate partner abuse, trust your instinct. It’s not your job to investigate. It’s your job to support. You can simply tell your friend that you’re concerned about the relationship, that something doesn’t seem healthy. Ask her if she’s willing to share these concerns with someone more knowledgable, like a professional counselor. Offer to go with her. She may not want to do it, because she feels responsible for protecting her abuser’s reputation. If she doesn’t want to get help, ask if she’d be willing to look at some materials about healthy and unhealthy relationships. You can print some materials from the Hotline website to talk through with her.

I don’t recommend that you go behind your loved one’s back in trying to help her. She is living a life under someone else’s power. You want to communicate the opposite to her. She is her own person. She deserves to make her own decisions. She has dignity and worth. Ask her what she wants to do and give her options, but don’t make decisions for her and don’t pressure her.

If she shares with you that children may be endangered, you should report to CPS. Don’t wait, and don’t wonder whether it is actually happening or just suspected. The safety of children is always imperative, and it’s not up to you to figure out – only to report. To report child abuse in Texas, call 1-800-252-5400, or www.txabusehotline.org. The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-4-A-Child, or www.childhelp.org.

 

Questions to ask an abuse survivor

I’m encouraged by the number of people who want to be helpful. Even more, I’m grateful for those who are willing to take the risk of leaning into hard conversations, hoping to support someone who’s suffering. I’ve often received questions from people about what types of questions they should ask someone who has survived abuse. I’m learning that many people want to help but hesitate to step into the conversation out of fear that they’ll do or say something wrong.

If you’re someone who wants to support a survivor of abuse, thank you. Being fearful of saying the wrong thing is only natural. Feeling unprepared is common. The worst thing you could do would be to back away and hope someone else steps in. I’m happy to give you some jumping-off points in order to help you ask good questions. But first, allow me to give some words of caution.

When I first started sharing my story with others, I got a variety of responses. I was seventeen when I was sexually assaulted. I told two adults about it. The first one asked me what I was wearing when it happened. The second asked me if I was going to press charges. I have no doubt that both those adults thought they were being helpful. One thought she would shield me from further abuse by instructing me on my clothing choices, and the other thought she would help me get justice. My response? I walked away and never spoke to either of them again about my suffering.

Many people think they’re being helpful by offering advice or trying to “make right” what went wrong. Allow me to let you off the hook. You won’t fix anything. Ever. You can’t make the hurt end by any word you will say. You can’t create peace by bringing the perpetrator to justice. No human word or action fixes the brokenness caused by abuse.

I’ve counseled dozens of abuse survivors. Not one of them “got better” because someone asked the right questions or offered the best advice. We all journey toward healing for our whole lives. You may have the honor of walking alongside one of these beautiful people, and you’ll be better for it. But you won’t ever fix anything.

So my word of caution is this: first, check your “fixer” at the door. Ask yourself why you want to step into the conversation before you step in. The ultimate motive should be love, fueled by compassion and hope. Second, you shouldn’t ask these questions of someone with whom you haven’t already established a strong relationship. Healing happens in the context of safety. If you aren’t sure whether you’re a safe person for her, ask someone else to step in and support her. Third, you’re not an investigator. The point is not that you get all the information. The point is that you empathize with her. This means you may not have all the facts, but hopefully you’ll gain insight into her experience. And finally, you’re (most likely) not a professional counselor. Please don’t try to counsel her – it takes years of study and experience to know how to guide someone toward healing. You are there to listen and support. Leave the counseling to someone who’s trained and ethically bound to do no harm.

(Keep in mind that these questions are intended to be asked of someone who has shared that she was abused in the past. In a future post, I’ll share questions to ask someone who might be experiencing current abuse.)

  1. I can’t imagine what you’ve experienced, but I want to. Will you tell me more about what happened to you? (This is a purposefully open-ended question. She will share with you what she feels comfortable sharing. Don’t push for more.)
  2. What was it like in the days and months following the abuse?
  3. Did you tell anyone directly after it happened? How did they respond?
  4. What are some ways the abuse has affected your life?
  5. When you think about the future, is anything scary to you?
  6. Who has helped you in your healing journey. What has been helpful about their involvement?
  7. What are some unhelpful or hurtful things people have said or done as you’ve sought to heal?
  8. Who is walking alongside you now? Do you need additional support?
  9. Have you been involved in groups or counseling to help you heal? Is that something you want?
  10. How can I continue to support you as you heal?

 

Please share your comments and questions with me! 

How should men care for female survivors of sexual abuse?

“I was bit by a big dog when I was a kid, and now I’m afraid of all big dogs.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear this from my friend. It’s a natural instinct for her to recoil from something that reminds her of a dangerous situation. In fact, it’s a God-given instinct for survival. I don’t fault my friend for the way she feels – it’s just the way she feels. And I’m not defensive that she doesn’t want to be around my black lab, no matter how friendly or lovable. Her experience has changed her perceptions and interactions.

Since the recent news about perpetrators of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, I’ve had several conversations with men about the experience of a female abuse survivor. These men are asking me questions because they know my story. They know I can relate.

I am a survivor of sexual assault. I was seventeen, and I was forced into a sexual encounter by a peer. The pain of that moment still grieves me, but equal to that grief were the horrifying days and months following the abuse, in which well-meaning Christians affirmed the dreaded voice that was haunting my every thought: “It was your fault.”

The damage is great. Vast and far-reaching. Since that season of my life, I have read and studied and met individually and in groups with countless women like me. Our stories are all different, but all with common threads. We all felt overwhelming shame, betrayal and fear. And we all heard the dreaded voice. We couldn’t make it stop. It told us we were to blame.

We were trying to make sense of something senseless, so we believed we caused the trauma. That allowed us to feel a sense of control, to build a system in which we could prevent further trauma if only we could do everything perfectly next time. But let’s be honest – we didn’t know any of that. We were just drowned in shame and fear, and we fought our way to the surface the best way we knew how.

In building this system, the creation of categories became a survival tactic. The location of the abuse was now off-limits. The clothing I wore, the size and shape of my body, the way I interact with the opposite sex…on and on. My list became very long, and it grew each time I had a flashback to the abuse. But at the top of my list was one word. MEN.

In the same way my friend recoils from big dogs because of her interaction with one bad one, I became afraid of men. I began to assume that they all thought of me as a piece of meat, not even good enough to be swallowed but only to be chewed up and spit out. This was not a true statement, of course, but my brain had created a category to keep me safe. Until healing occurred, this category was the only way for me to function.

So what should you do if you’re a man who wants to care for a female sexual abuse survivor? How do you interact with her? What does she need?

Use your ears.

If you are someone she trusts enough to receive her story, that’s a gift. The moment you know what she faced, you have become someone unlike her abuser. You have been trusted with something very vulnerable and tender. So there’s no need to defend your gender. There’s no reason to try to educate her or admonish her. These are moments of ministry – the ministry of listening. Whatever she shares is precious. Take it to heart, and let her know that you are honored to receive her story.

Believe the best of her.

The voice in her head takes a long time to go away. For some, it never goes away. She expects others to perpetuate that voice and tell her she was to blame for the abuse. She’s wondering what you think the moment you hear her story. She doesn’t have a personal vendetta against you because you’re a man. She has very good reason to believe that a man will betray and belittle and dehumanize her, because she’s experienced it firsthand. While you’re not to blame for the abuse, someone in your gender was. That means you can help by being someone who looks her in the face, who smiles kindly, who affirms that what she experienced was a vile and abominable evil.

Push below the anger.

Many men I’ve encountered are able to express their anger and disgust that someone could perpetrate sexual abuse. But I have found few men who are willing to dig below the anger into how they feel. Anger is a secondary emotion – it stems from something else. What do you feel beneath the anger? Is anger a shield that allows you to stand in righteous indignation without actually experiencing empathy?

Empathy comes when you admit that you don’t understand and humbly ask for help. Some think they are empathizing, but they’re actually just sympathizing (i.e., “I understand because I experienced something similar”). You cannot understand what someone has faced, no matter how similar your experiences have been. Empathy means you ask for understanding, desiring to sit in the ashes with someone. It means you want to experience it yourself alongside them. This is so painful to do, and many men refuse.

If you’re interested in experiencing empathy regarding a woman’s experience with sexual abuse, start with this question: What if she were my wife? my daughter? my sister? my best friend? my mother? my girlfriend?

Let that question sink in. All the way down to the core. What if? How angry would you feel? How sad? How terrified? How hopeless?

Now look into that woman’s face. She IS your wife, your daughter, your sister, your best friend, your mother, your girlfriend. She is.

Link arms with her

She may have been walking on the road to healing for a long time, or she may have just begun. Ask her how you can serve her. You are most likely not the person she’ll continue to talk with about her abuse, but she needs someone (or several someones). Find resources in your church and community that specialize in caring for abuse survivors. Help her access those resources, and then commit to walk alongside her as she heals. She needs faithful men in her life, men who combat the lie that all males dehumanize females. And remember that she may share her story with you, but that doesn’t mean you’re automatically and completely safe. She needs other women, primarily, to be her support system. Operate as her advocate and resource-provider, and keep asking her how you can serve her.

I hope this post generates many other posts! Please send me your comments, stories, and questions. 

 

I’m Judging You

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Here’s a common scenario: you’re driving along the highway, minding your own business. A car pulls right up on your bumper, honks, and swerves around you. The driver gives you the finger as he flies past you. Your first thought: “What’s his problem?” Your next thought: “What a jerk!”

Let’s all just admit that we make quick judgments based on very little information. The above situation is common to anyone who’s driven in the city, and it’s relatively harmless. But what we’re doing when we call that driver a jerk is a much larger problem, because we’re not just handing out snap judgments on the highway. We’re doing it every day across all spectrums of life.

It’s the human condition to take the quickest and least intrusive route toward understanding. Case in point: Google. If I needed to learn about something for a research project when I was a kid, my teacher sent me to the library to thumb through a card catalogue till I found the book I wanted. Then I read the book to learn the information I needed. Yes, I know. I’m old.

But now, all I have to do is type (or even just speak) a few words into my phone, and a litany of information pops onto my screen. Why in the world would I ever use a library again? The quickest way to get information is the best way.

Or is it?

If I asked you to tell me something that really frustrates you, you’d be able to give me not only the answer, but you could tell me why that thing frustrates you. You have good reasons for the things that bother you most, and those reasons are most likely personal.

Let me give you an example. A young woman gets up quickly and causes a disturbance during a movie. She blocks everyone’s view and makes a lot of noise trying to get out of the theater. You’re annoyed – she shouldn’t have bought a large coke if she couldn’t wait to go to the bathroom till this intense scene is over. What you don’t know is that she was sexually assaulted as a young child, and this movie scene has triggered intense fear. She can’t breathe. Her heart is pounding. She’s not thinking too much about whether she is disturbing others. She has to get out of there.

Or what about that online friend who posts articles several times a week about social injustice? Maybe you’ve labeled him as somebody who just likes to yell loudly. You start to dismiss his thoughts and roll your eyes at his opinions. You don’t understand that he has family members and friends who have suffered horrible injustice, and his way of helping is to speak for them.

You don’t know, because you don’t ask. We all do this. We make snap judgments about people without learning anything. We’d rather avoid the hard work and painful experience of putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, of trying to understand what they think and feel.

If someone is expressing feelings of anger or fear, there’s a reason. Emotions are like signs on the road that point us to what’s in front of us. They help us understand ourselves, but they are also meant to help us understand each other. My friend who is incredibly angry about the results of the election last November is angry for a reason. My family member who rejects the kindness of others has reasons for why she’s withdrawing. Instead of deciding quickly what other people are like, what if I took the time to seek understanding? to ask real questions? to come near to them?

We are meant to share experiences. This is why biographies are written, why songs are sung, why the Holocaust Museum was built. I cannot share your experience unless I come close to you. I can’t even begin to understand till I hear the stories and look into your eyes as you tell them.

One of my favorite stories of a shared experience happens in the Bible, in John 20:24-28. Jesus has just been raised from the dead, and his friends are all talking about it. Thomas doesn’t believe it. He says he’ll have to touch Jesus’ wounds in order to believe that he has risen. The first time they’re together, Jesus asks him to come close. He doesn’t reprimand Thomas for not believing. Instead, he invites Thomas to touch the wounds in his hands and his side. He provides Thomas with a shared experience.

I wonder if that experience was painful for Jesus. Did it hurt to have Thomas’ finger pushed into his wound?

Shared experience is risky, and it’s painful. But it’s the way we’re meant to live if we want to be unified. I need to look you in the eyes and ask you what you think about difficult topics, and then I need to be ready to actually listen (not just wait for my turn to talk). I need to be able to tell you about my wounds, about the things that I really care about. And the goal is not to fix each other. It’s not to change anybody’s mind. It’s not to make someone feel a little better or forget the pain.

The goal is unity.

When Someone You Love Walks Away

Broken Heart

If you’ve ever tried to love someone and they didn’t receive it, this post is for you.

I have experience with this. Sometimes it’s just one conversation with someone and I feel completely shut down. Sometimes I spend years trying to be a friend, and ultimately the person walks away and never returns. These are really hard situations, and I think it would be easy for me to just shrug and say, “Well, it must be for the best,” or “She’ll eventually turn around,” or “God is sovereign.” While these statements may be (or are) true, I think they can keep us from facing the pain of loss. They can also keep us from coming to terms with our faith.

When a person decides your friendship isn’t worth her time anymore, it hurts. If you’re not careful, you’ll miss an opportunity to ask a critical question: How does this circumstance potentially shake my faith and invite doubt to creep in?

There was a time in my life when I lost a friendship that was very dear to me. This woman not only walked away from our friendship, but she also walked away from the Church and the Lord. I wanted to shut down my pain and just “trust the Lord.” But deep down, a storm was brewing. I spent several months white-knuckling my faith, telling everyone that I trusted the Lord’s plan. Only problem was, I didn’t believe a word of it. Why did my friend reject me? Why did she reject the Lord? Why didn’t He do more to intervene? What would happen if she died in the near future – would she go to hell? What was I supposed to do to help her?

These questions flew around in my head like a tornado. I knew I should trust the Lord, but I didn’t. I thought I had to fix something. I thought I must have done something wrong, or else maybe she wouldn’t have walked away.

A moment came when I crashed. In that moment of brokenness, I heard the gentle words of the Lord, saying it was ok for me to be sad. He wanted me to bring my grief and frustration and doubt into His throneroom. He wanted me to stop trying to be strong. He didn’t ask me to suck it up or move on. He allowed me to feel what I was feeling, just like a good counselor would do. And then in that moment (and many more to follow), He turned my heart to remind me of truth. He settled the storm.

This took time. If you’re grieving the loss of a friend, I encourage you to take your thoughts, feelings, and doubts to the Lord. He wants to be your comfort. And don’t be afraid to share with godly friends your frustrations and questions. I promise even the most godly person you know has struggled with doubt and anger. Be willing to be honest and vulnerable.

And finally, pray for wisdom. Just because someone walks away from you doesn’t mean the Lord gives you freedom to walk away as well. He calls us to continually love, even when that love isn’t reciprocated. You may not know how to do that, but He does, and He’ll show you.