I had a dream last night. I love it when, in my dreams, I do what I would do in person. It usually means that I’ve finally processed a thing deeply enough that my heart and psyche have caught up with what my head knows.
In my dream, I made no excuses. I called abuse what it was, and I stood firm on the boundaries set. I held space for the victim. My dream was a reminder that my processing has, over the last few years, shifted. I usually have to live through something and come out the other side, before I can write about it. It’s taken years to get here. I needed to heal. My children needed to be safe from repricussion.
For the present, I’m not going to share my story in detail. Not yet. There are other hearts involved that aren’t ready for those disclosures. For now, I’lll share what I’ve learned along the way and trust you to trust me when I say, “I know this deeply.”
These aren’t just words on a page. This isn’t psychobabble.
This is an overview of my experience, and the experiences of those who are flesh of my flesh. I’ve felt it to my core. I know it in the very fiber of my being. This is what I’ve learned. Well,, some of what I’ve learned.
To start, here are a few truths:
1. You are loved, by God. You were created in His image. Because you are an image-bearer of God, [Or, bear God’s image?] you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Period. Full stop. If you’re married, your spouse deserves the same. As a married couple, you both deserve love, kindness, and patience expressed in verbal, emotional, and physical ways.
2. God is very clear that abuse towards women and children is not to be tolerated. In fact, in Scripture, God took His people from a culture that didn’t value women or children to a place where women and children realized immense personal worth.
3. Knowledge is power. If you are an abuse victim, you need to understand the abuse cycles and need words to describe your experience. If you care for or know someone you suspect is being abused, you need the power of that same knowledge.
My next segment will cover the abuse cycles. My hope is that each one will give you the power of knowledge.
Since I woke from my dream, I have words! I want you to have them too..
Abuse – what it may look like:
There’s a cycle of abuse. It’s a cycle that often takes a long time to recognize for the victim, but eventually those who are survivors, who recognize their worth and value, step out of the cycle. It isn’t easy, many victims will leave 7-12 times and go back, before they are finally “done”and usually the abuser lashes out, and will use anything in their power to regain the “relationship”. ANYTHING. And EVERYTHING. For YEARS…. That’s why many support groups recommend “no contact” policy with the abuser. Of course, that’s impossible in certain situations, which means it takes far longer to actually truly get out of the cycle.
The cycle – there’s a time of tension, when things are building. Lots of controlling behavior from the abuser, and walking on eggshells by the victim, who is trying to keep the abuser happy. The victims may even be “happy” with some connection, intimacy and joyful moments.. but under the surface, the victim is on edge, waiting for the next proverbial shoe to drop…
Because, the drop will come. The abuser acts out – is violent in some way – verbally, physically, etc…. The victim sustains deep wounds – bodily or to their soul or both. They begin to bleed out…. At this point, in the mode of self protection, the victim will do anything to make the abuse stop. They will tell the abuser what they want to hear, or clam up, or placate… they will do whatever it takes to make the abuse stop ASAP.. They are in full self protect and defend mode. They may also be in “self protect” the marriage, relationship, etc so will do things that seem off to the onlooker as they try to hold the “idea of the relationship” together while also defending themselves against the abuser. Sometimes victims stay because of the “idea of marriage”, the “hope of being loved”, the “person he could be”. Sometimes it’s because they were raised with the idea that “God hates divorce” – which is another blog in itself – but in short, God is very clear in the beginning books of Scripture that abuse of a slave turned wife is justifiable cause for divorce – how much more so a wife who chose to be a wife! Whatever the case, they may self protect the “marriage” and therefore the abuser, even while self protecting themselves against the abuser.
At some point, the anger dissipated, the abuser moves to apologies, tears, and/or blaming the victim. The victim usually accepts the apology, has hope, thinks, “Oh the abuser is really going to change now.” They may take the blame. They may apologize for whatever small infraction caused the blow up. This brings the relationship to some sort of “peace”.
They call this part of the cycle a honeymoon, but it isn’t a honeymoon. The victim is actually still reeling in pain, trying to find sure footing, and the abuser is manipulating the victim to keep the victim from leaving. BECAUSE.. IF the abuser was truly sorry, they would stop abusing. As our counselor has clearly stated, “If you apologize, you may only do so once. Apologize and change. If you apologize and do the same thing over and over you will lose all credibility.” So, if the abuser is apologizing, just to repeat the pattern next week, or in a month, just to lash out again – then it’s not an apology.. it’s simply manipulation.
If the abuser is blaming the victim, again, it’s manipulation, because if the abuser was healthy, they would actually take responsibility for their actions. Period. Full stop. Always. They wouldn’t put their woes over on everyone but them…
Effects of Abuse on the Victim:
I recently described the “honeymoon/calm” this way…
After the angry outburst, and after the apology, the victims crave peace, and are in intense pain, so they quickly say “I forgive you” even tho their hearts are bleeding out on the ground from the latest wound. They ease themselves wounded and limping, through the rest of the time with the abuser, walking on eggshells, trying not to raise his/her wrath again, and then, if they are lucky enough to “get away” from the abuser for a time – fall apart due to the loss of blood.
They may fall apart in the shower, after the abuser has gone to bed, while the abuser is at work, or once they are not in the abuser’s presence because they’ve been able to smooth things out and leave “peaceably” or in the case of children in a divorce, because visitation time is up and they are no longer with the abusing parent. They may do this falling apart alone, or in the presence of family and friends. Children often act out, and may take a few days to come to any equilibrium when not in the abuser’s presence.
If the victim is unable to “fall apart”, they will simply stuff the pain, for as long as they can before it erupts in disease of some kind. One way or another, the pain will come out because the pain was too great to not take a toll. That’s why victims of abuse are at greater risk for health issues later. There are many studies that have been done that show a direct correlation between abuse and greater incidence of health problems and even early death, especially for children who score high on the ACE questionnaire. ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and describes the experiences that can deeply impact a child for life – such as abuse, to them or their parent, abandonment, drug use by parents, neglect, mental illness in a parent, etc. For more, see this page, or the associated links to the CDC study contained here: https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/
Once the victim has “fallen apart” or stuffed the pain, slowly, they will take a big breath, and dive back into the relationship because the “honeymoon/calm” stage is upon us and all looks rosy. The victim will ignore that pit in their stomach, that fear of next time, that constant tension they feel, and will usually stay. If during this honeymoon/calm phase, the abuser meets the victims love languages (mine are physical touch and quality time), then the cycle is MUCH harder to pull out of because the victim actually feels loved during these moments. Fleeting. Moments. But, moments that keep those of us who are/were victims “in”. I made this connection a few years after I divorced. I realized that the meeting of those love language needs is what had held me in the relationship as long as it did. The quality time when my partner was past being remorseful/guilt ridden and before he became agitated, plus cuddles and make up sex made me feel loved, and therefore able to ride out the other two portions of the abuse cycle, believing that the “true him” was during that brief calm stage and not the rage filled tyrant, or the depressed, shame filled Eeyore…
This accepting the apology and then later falling apart isn’t a lie – tho the abuser may accuse them of lying. The victim isn’t lying – not in the traditional sense of “I know what is true but will tell you something else.”
It’s true to the victim’s experience. First, The victim often feels helpless to stop the abuse other than to tell the abuser what the abuser wants to hear. So as the abuse is happening, that’s often what the victim will do – calm the abuser down at all costs. Then, When the abuser apologizes, the victim truly wants to believe the abuser. They want to have hope. They want to be loved and not treated as worthless shit. That’s why they say, “I forgive you.” Additionally, because they are reeling from the trauma, they don’t have words for how they feel in that moment. Their adrenaline is still pumping far too fast to be able to think or communicate rationally. It usually takes them time to process, to really see and give voice to their feelings. To expect a victim to be clear, concise and straightforward in the immediate aftermath of abuse is unrealistic.
Often, the victim can’t let on to the pain they are feeling in front of the abuser because that puts them at risk of being hurt more. Instead they stuff and shut down. Victim’s learn to shut down their emotions, to not give tells on their face as to their pain. They anesthetize themselves by cutting off their ability to feel deeply.. Because they know if they do give a “tell” the abuse will be greater. Sadly, this doesn’t stop the abuser… In fact, abusers may needle and incite the victim to “try to get a rise or response out of them”. Let me say that again, Abusers want a reaction, they want to know they can control the victim, they want to see pain on the victim’s face. They may even admit to a certain level of abuse as an attempt to incite the victim to a response. (As me how I know…)
But, the victim has learned that hiding the pain is less risky than allowing the abuser to see it. AND the victim has learned that hiding their pain is their ONLY way of controlling the situation, so, the victim falls apart when they are away from the abuser and they feel safe.
I have found that here is one true safe place. Messiah said, “Come to me, all of you who are struggling and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:28-29 CJB
He is faithful, and true, to walk with us through these valleys, to heal our hearts and to restore to us the years that have been destroyed by abuse. He often uses others to support us on the journey.
For those who are supporting Victims:
Beware – at some point the abuser will likely turn on you. You may be accused of any number of things. You’ll have to know that you are making the decisions you are making to support the victim with full knowledge and the willingness to stand by your decisions. So, be sure you know what you are standing on.
Having a rational conversation with the abuser isn’t going to be likely because they don’t see themselves as abusive. So their expectations of the victim, of you, of others are for “healthy relationships” yet, because they are abusive, they are unable to have healthy relationships. Their arguments will sound rational and reasonable … UNTIL you remember that they are, in fact abusers – which makes their expectations entirely unrealistic.
They may attempt to butter you up, woo you, share their sob stories or convince you of “their side of the story”, painting the victim with ugly stripes. If you are unsure, then certainly, listen to their side. Listen to the victim’s side. Ask both of them hard questions. Both while listening, and in going back to the other person to fully understand the situation if the stories are vastly different. Take time to observe the parties in question. Ask yourself if the abuser has always told “this story” or if last year they were singing the victim’s praises or begging the victim to come back.
Abusers tend to cycle through their periphery victims. So one moment one “periphery” person is the victim, next week it will be someone else, and last month’s victim is now to be chummed up to as if nothing happened the month before. Watch for those types of patterns.
Additionally, An abuser will rarely take responsibility for their actions or the consequences of their decisions, so let constant blaming of others for the losses of relationships be a clear “tell”. Ask those who have been eye witness to prior periods of the relationship to summarize their observations. Talk to those who have stepped out of relationships with the abusers.. Don’t expect perfection out of either party, but look for patterns. They’ll show up….
Once you are sure of your position, stand on it. Don’t waver. Be the support the victim needs. If you haven’t made a decision, or feel torn – don’t offer support you can’t follow through on.
So What does Support look like?
When safety is provided by others for the victim, it isn’t ‘Molly coddling’ despite the abuser’s accusations. It also isn’t manipulation. It is merely allowing the victims feelings and hurt to be fully expressed, and to be regarded as valid in the face of the emotional, verbal and physiological, or even physical, sexual or financial abuse they have endured.
Those who support the victims need only to ask the victims what happened, what they are thinking, and how they feel, and then reflect back that their feelings and hurt is valid. It’s okay for them to say, “I’m angry with you.” “I hurt for you.” “This makes my heart hurt.” Or “This makes me angry for you.” – because that validates the victim’s sense of anger – but don’t overstate your own emotions to the victim. Simple statements, where they feel cared for, validated and heard are best. Don’t make them feel like they have to take care of or protect you or themselves from your emotional response – so hold your anger till you can express it away from the victim. Believe me, it’s possible.. I’ve done it. I don’t vent to victims, If I vent, I vent to my support system.
Support people may need to call the abuse what it is… I know I needed the words – even as an adult….
There’s no need for lectures. It can and should be a short, simple, declarative statement:
“Calling someone names (such as idiot, stupid, quitter, coward) or cursing them (“Don’t give me that $hi%, asking if they are F’ing stupid) is verbal abuse. I understand why you feel hurt.”
“Taking sex by force, even in marriage, is rape. That’s not love, it’s sexual abuse. You have permission to be hurt and angry.”
“Punching or shoving in anger is physical abuse. That’s inappropriate behavior and not okay.”
“Discipline of children doesn’t include a balled up fist, regardless of the child’s age. That’s abuse. You have a valid reason to be angry.”
“Suggesting that you are damned to hell for ending the abuse cycle is spiritual abuse. It’s okay to be upset by those words.”
“Expecting you to read their minds and receiving their anger when you don’t is manipulation. It’s a form of psychological abuse, and is unrealistic. We all think differently, and you have a great brain.”
Those supporting the victim don’t have to, and shouldn’t, berate the abuser to the victim, because the victim is caught and at some level loves the abuser and will feel defensive if their support person disparages the abuser. Disparaging the abuser will only push the victim away from you as a support person. Again, don’t make the victim feel like they need to protect you or themselves from your responses toward the abuser.
Instead, validate feelings, share simple facts. Send the victim to resources that will confirm that their experience is abuse. Encourage them to find and maintain a good counselor. The saying that knowledge is power is deeply applicable here… Because…. If the victim has knowledge of what abuse is, and has seen the abuse cycle, they will eventually recognize it. The abuser, given enough time, will prove to the victim that they can’t be trusted and are, in fact abusers. They will proverbially hang themselves. Over and over again..
I know… sometimes the abuse is so great that a support person may fear for the victim’s life, and rightly so. Early on, I had a dear friend tell me the truth of her experience. She was clear that abuse always escalates over time, never gets less. She shared a story of a friend of hers who had been threatened with physical violence. Then the abuser began to hit. When the victim finally left the relationship, the abuser stalked her and attempted to kill her – she lived, but had to have surgery to reconstruct the cut across her throat. My friend was very clear that threats often turn into more. I needed to know that. There may be other more educated advice out there for the support people of victims who are truly at risk for their lives.. If someone you are giving support to is in that place, please do some research.
Sadly, regardless of the potential for harm, the victim isn’t going to leave until they are ready. They have to acknowledge and see the abuse for what it is. They have to come to a place that they are done – “stick a fork in me” done. They have to be willing to leave, for good. They have to be tired of the abuse, ready to take whatever consequences come from walking away, and clear within themselves that they are making the decision for themselves. Honestly, there’s no manipulating or controlling the victim into leaving and you wouldn’t be a good, healthy support if you tried.
They have a deep loyalty to the abuser. If they didn’t they would have left long ago. Whether it’s marriage, some unspoken or spoken contract between them, or the abuser is a parent – the net truth is the same – the victim stays because of their loyalty and they won’t leave until their trust has been so broken that the only choice they have to retain any sense of selfhood is to leave.
Let that sink in. The Victim will NOT leave until they are ready to leave. Even then, the pressure that the abuser puts on the victim may hook their hearts again, and they may return…. For a while, or for good.
So, what does that mean for you, the support and friend of the victim who is still in the abuse? It means offer support. Offer love. Offer truth. Offer support at a distance if they stay.. Meaning, don’t become so enmeshed in the victim’s life that you become a victim also. Tell them you love them regardless. Stay present. Don’t always bring the abuse up. Be a listening ear. Listen without judgement. Reflect back what you are hearing. Offer friendship and times away that aren’t at all focused on the abuse. Take a girls night out. Go shopping. Take them and their littles for a hike. My family did that for me. I knew, when the time came, that they had my back, and I had their support. They had waited, patiently, until I was ready. I know that took an immense amount of self control and surrender on their parts as they watched me “disappear”, as they observed my pain, but they gave me the room I needed to make my choices to stay, and the support I needed when I was ready to leave.
It also means – give permission. Give permission to the victim to be angry. To be hurt. To cry. To wail. To vent. To get help. To find a counselor. To say hard things. To hold boundaries. AND most importantly, give them permission to leave. Don’t tell them to leave… That’s different. I heard, more than once, “You need to leave his sorry ass.” But that wasn’t helpful. I needed permission, not advice. Give them permission to leave, to be done. They have to make the choice on their own, and they need to know that you will support their choice.
When I left one of the kindest things said to me was, “Misty, We will help you. We have a space for you. If you are ready, I’ll come down with my trailer and load you up. You tell me when.” I didn’t take up that particular offer as I had other offers as well…. But, their permission to leave, and their offer of help to leave, from that particular family, validated my experience because they had seen it up close and personal and based on typical loyalties should have been begging me to stay. I needed their permission.
I once saw a child who had been given the permission by professionals around them, to hold boundaries with their abuser. I’ve never, in my life, seen a child run and play as freely and largely as that child played that day! I swear if they’d had wings, they would have flown! As it was, they climbed higher, spun faster, ran more swiftly, skipped more exuberantly than I’ve ever seen that child, or any child play. I will never forget that day.
Give the victim permission to have and hold boundaries. That’s often all they need.
Lastly – speak life! Speak to the victim’s value. Speak to the Love of God for them! Compliment their character, their creativity, their passions. Victims have usually been repeatedly told and therefore internalized some massive lies about their worth, value and belovedness. The effects of this verbal and emotional abuse was recently described as a “weighted blanket of negative words” that holds the victim down. It feels all warm and cozy because that’s all the victim knows, but their psyche is dying, they are likely depressed, and may even be suicidal. Your words of life are antidote. They help lift the blanket off. Speak life!
To those who are in the middle of the abuse cycle:
I’ll say this – I don’t regret my decisions to stay, because I know Father asked me to for a season (that’s another story for another time). However, I don’t recommend staying – it’s hard as hell and I promise you, there are hard consequences that get harder with every day you stay…
But you have to be ready. You have to know you did EVERYTHING you could to make it work, because in the end of the day, You are the one who has to live with your decisions.
I also don’t regret my decision to walk away from abuse. Not one bit. It was the best decision I could have made, for me, and for my children. The second best decision I made was to get a counselor – one for me, one for the boys who was specifically their counselor. Their counselor has been hugely helpful to me as I’ve navigated parenting alone. He’s given them tools. He’s given them a voice. Lastly, He’s given them permission in ways I could not.
My counselor helped me deal with the trauma. A good trauma therapist, well versed in EMDR is worth their weight in gold in my opinion.
If you are thinking of walking away from the abuse, please start keeping records. I mean it. Document, document, document. Do as much of the communication as possible via written word (expect massive pushback from the abuser), or record verbal conversations (do know there are legal considerations here and recordings may not hold up in court, but they will help you keep track of what happened.) Take pictures. Capture screenshots. Keep emails. If you’ve just walked away, it’s not too late to start, in fact, now is the perfect time. Document!!
Why? Because you will amass a body of irrefutable documentation to stand on. You have to know that You can live with your decisions. Having hard, irrefutable data will give you that confidence.
We tend to put the abuse out of our minds. We tend to try to forget. If you document you will begin to see patterns more clearly. You won’t be going on memory. You won’t be going on feelings. You’ll have hard evidence in front of you. You won’t have to convince other’s of your decisions. You won’t have to defend yourself. If you feel like others have a place in your life to question your decisions, you can lay out the evidence and let them see it clearly. But please know that you own them no explanation. Lastly, you’ll have the evidence you may need in court.
Lastly – years ago, I wrote the following words, “I believe in marriage. I want marriage. But this isn’t loving. This isn’t life. This isn’t it.” Victims often feel that life is always going to be in the valley. They often feel like they aren’t fully living.
But this isn’t life.
Life is truly good. Outside of abuse, with some healing behind you? Life is good! There’s a lot of beauty in life! Have hope!
Sure, when a victim leaves the abusive relationship, there’s some years of hard. There’s years of heartache, of grieving, of facing the losses. Give yourself time to be in that valley, to make mistakes, to heal, to grow, to make decisions that are only yours to make, that may not be supported by others, but are part of your healing process. Don’t jump into another relationship. Become YOU. Heal! If you are in relationships, let them grow you, but don’t let them hold you down. Be in the valley. Embrace it. I promise – the valley won’t last forever. There are mountain top experiences ahead of you! Life is beautiful! But you won’t fully appreciate the mountaintop if you don’t allow yourself to experience the valley. So, do the valley until one day you realize that you are steadily walking uphill. Enjoy the journey. Look for beauty daily. And know that you are loved, deeply, by your Creator!