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.

 

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. 

 

Biblical Womanhood for Men

The subject of biblical womanhood is one that seems to have almost been beaten to death among Christian women. It might be because we hope to find the magic bullet that will enlighten and propel us immediately into perfect obedience and submission to God’s plan for our role. Well, all this reading and listening and searching, and we still haven’t perfected ourselves. And now we’re hopefully realizing this subject is like all others. We grow more slowly than we want to grow, but that’s the process of sanctification. We need to keep reading and listening and searching, and each time we’ll move a little closer to our Father’s good design.

For all the Christian men who hold a right view of the role of women in God’s Kingdom, there are countless others who completely misunderstand what biblical womanhood means. And I’m not sure those men are terribly interested in learning about it. I don’t think it’s because they’re unconcerned or chauvinistic – I think they just don’t believe the subject is for them. I would argue that Christian men should be experts on the subject of biblical womanhood, so I’d like to speak directly to our brothers in Christ.

Are you married, or are you hoping to be married someday? Do you have daughters? Mothers? Sisters? Female co-workers? The fact is you are surrounded by us. We’re everywhere. In order to love us and serve us according to God’s Word, you’ll be wise to study biblical womanhood alongside us. So all throughout this series, I plan to offer questions for reflection for both women and men. I’d love to get your feedback and questions, because this is a conversation we need to be having TOGETHER, not just as separate genders. Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

  1. Historically, what words have come to mind when you thought of women? How have you typically viewed them?
  2. What is one question you have about the role of women in God’s Kingdom?
  3. In what ways might God grow you toward Himself through a study of biblical womanhood?

Feel free to be brave and post your answers as a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

Biblical Womanhood: A Series

Pearls on Bible
Three years ago I led a study for some women in our church on six aspects of biblical womanhood. Recently I came across the material again and decided to write several posts about the topics covered in that study.

Let me warn you – this is not a typical discussion of biblical womanhood. I have had more than my fill of books and studies about being a good wife and mother, about marriage versus singleness, and about modesty in a culture of sexual progressiveness. While we certainly benefit from talking about these things, I prefer to go a different route in the discussion.

So here are the topics we’re going to discuss over the next several weeks:

  • The Fear of God
  • Quietness of Spirit (it’s not what you might think!)
  • Wisdom
  • Virtue
  • Submission
  • Diligence

Sound interesting? I’m telling you – I was so floored as I began to study these topics and how they apply to me as a woman belonging to Christ. And I want this to actually be a discussion, not a monologue. So as you read, think, and answer questions, please respond. It’s that comment box at the bottom!!

A side note for those of you who are men: I believe you will be equally blessed to learn about these things with us. Just because you’re not a woman does not mean you don’t need to learn about womanhood. You have women in your life, right? And I’ll bet they hold significant influence and affection in your heart. Understanding their God-given gifts and roles will grow your love for them and for Christ. So stick with us, guys. You’ll be glad you did.

“Let Not the Men Keep Silent” – A Response

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Recently I read a blog post from my friend, Jen Wilkin. She bravely speaks up about the need for men in the church to “bestow (women) with validity.” I wholeheartedly agree with Jen.

I’m a minister and deacon at my church, and I often face the perils of feeling isolated because of my femaleness. It’s not because my co-workers and brothers in Christ leave me out of decisions or conversations. They are supportive and kind-hearted. I don’t experience sexism in my workplace. What I do experience is my own insecurity that comes from years of being told there are things I can’t do because I’m a woman. Even if no one is telling me I’m “less than” a man, I believe it because I can look at my history and my culture and hear it screaming my name.

My pastor is a beautiful example of a man who understands this plight. I’m not sure what brought him to understand, but I do know he’s not afraid. I think that’s the key. He’s not afraid to ask questions, and then he’s willing to listen to the answer and think critically about it. He doesn’t treat me as “less than.” Instead, he validates the baggage and seeks to compassionately carry my burden with me.

He’s not afraid to ask questions and listen to the answers, and he’s also not afraid of crossing some sort of imaginary line. I think many Christian men are so scared they’re going to tempt or be tempted toward a male/female relationship that’s too emotional. I get it, but fear can’t keep us from walking in love toward one another. The Bible doesn’t command men only to show compassion, gentleness, and kindness to other men. Nor does it tell women only to care for and nurture other women. It tells us all to love each other. And I feel loved by my brother and pastor when he looks at me and sits with me in my pain and encourages me with God’s Word. He shepherds me well.

My encouragement to my brothers in Christ will be to pray for wisdom, and then to step out in faith toward their sisters. We are eager to respond in kind. My encouragement to my sisters will be to engage our brothers with a desire to walk in love together. My experience has been that my brothers have responded well when I’ve asked questions graciously and sought to understand their hearts.