abuse & christian obstacles to healing.

Abuse is rampant, for both women and men.

There are so many forms. Emotional. Physical. Sexual. (Often not mentioned in certain lists: Spiritual)

The statistics are so painful. (Please, read these)

Millions and millions.

Each minute of every day.

Getting out of an abusive relationship is brutally hard.

The ingredients are toxic and paralyzing–the potential consequences of more abuse if others know, fear & shame, the economic realities of leaving, fear & shame, the kids & other family ties, fear & shame, no-self-worth, fear & shame.

It’s a deadly combination packed with obstacles.

On average, it takes a woman 7 times to try to leave before she does. 7 times.

And even though men have something to lose if they exit an abusive relationship, the reality is that by-far-more women are abused and the consequences of her decision to finally leave are usually more grave–losing financial security, family ties, support from friends, sometimes-the-kids, and countless other losses that are difficult to measure but take their toll.

While I know men who have gotten out of abusive relationships, this post is primarily focused on women for a few reasons:  1. there are more of them; 2. the consequences are typically trickier, and 3. for those women who are part of an entrenched, tilted-against-women faith system, there are even bigger barriers to freedom.

I am privileged to know many amazing women who have gotten out and continue to rebuild. Their courage is incredibly inspiring. Over the years, I have watched them come back to life, find their way, get on solid ground, and believe they are valuable in ways that never happened when they were stuck in the dignity-stripping cycle of abuse in their marriages.

And while it’s extremely hard for every woman to exit an abusive relationship, most of the women I know come from a Christian framework, which adds another painful factor to overcome.

There are additional obstacles when the spoken and unspoken rules of conservative Christianity are tied into the story.

Think of these obstacles as a 30 foot high, 10 feet thick wall they have to carve through or claw over to get to the other side:

  1. Systems primarily pastored and governed by men who don’t know all kinds of things about the cycle of abuse against women (like you can’t start with couples counseling, as a starter).
  2. Theology that supports submission of women to men’s headship instead of equal partnership. I can’t count the number of women I know who either have had their husbands, leaders, or friends pull the “you just need to submit or respect him better” card.
  3. A pattern of often accusing victims, once they speak the truth about the abuse (which is usually minimized at first), of “not praying enough, trying enough, offering enough grace, submitting enough, forgiving enough, asking-for-God’s-wisdom enough.”
  4. Siding with power, which is typically in the hands of men. “I just can’t picture him doing that.” “He’s repentant.” “He’s trying.” “He’s turning back to God.” “It takes two to tango.” “There are always two sides to the story.” (Just to name a few; I know many of you have a long list to add here)
  5. Losing relationship and friendships. When women take a stand and refuse to allow themselves to be abused any longer, often they are abandoned by the systems they gave themselves to and the relationships that go along with it.  It can be one of the most painful losses; friends who no longer call, the silent treatment, the rejection, the shame.
  6. Not believing the victim. It is difficult to get our head around a “Christian leader” actually doing some of the painful things they are accused of.  It’s like a weird mixture of charisma & fairy dust is sprinkled in the air and people just can’t let themselves believe it’s possible.
  7. Little understanding of the realities of narcissism in the church for pastors and ministry leaders who abuse and how deep and insidious it can be.
  8. The God-Satan trump cards. “God can do it” and “Satan’s trying to destroy.” Both of these could be true; of course I believe in Hope & healing & the possibility of transformation. And I also believe there is an enemy who wants to steal & kill & destroy. However, these trump cards often readily get played in conservative Christian circles and can really mess with women’s ability to see clearly, to trust her gut, and do what she needs to do.
  9. Our addiction to quick fixes. “Counseling’ll do it.” “A separation’s not necessary.” “He’s trying.” On the whole, we hate the long haul, brutal road, and harsh realities of how much work it takes to unwind patterns of abuse in relationships. It takes so much humility & blood & guts & years of work to get to a new place (and is one of the reasons it very rarely happens together in these kinds of abusive relationships). We want simple solutions to a complicated problem.

It’s painful that those are just a few off the top of my head; unfortunately, there are more you could add.

As I reflect on these, I hurt for my sisters (and yes, for my brothers, too).

The body of Christ–the place that should be most dedicated to helping abused women find healing and freedom–and abusers to find the same thing–is often the place that brings the most bondage and shame and hiding and perpetuation of power.

I am grateful for the strong, brave souls like Naghmeh Abedeni who are willing to speak out and tell the truth despite the obstacles.

For the amazing advocates, cheerleaders, and men & women who stand alongside survivors as they tell their stories and courageously move toward healing.

For those speaking against unhealthy Christian power in ways that keep gaining momentum.

This morning when I woke up this passage from Isaiah 57:14 came to mind: “God says, “Rebuild the road! Clear away the rocks and stones so my people can return from captivity.”

Oh, I pray we would we play our part in clearing away these rocks and stones and pave a better path for those on the brutal road toward healing and freedom.   

//

ps: I’m extra grateful that my husband, Jose, is a pro-bono lawyer for Spanish-speaking domestic violence victims at a Christian Legal Aid Clinic here in Denver and an incredible advocate for the abused. Here’s a little post about how we took out those messed up #2 bricks together over a decade ago, up yesterday at Sheloves Magazine: An Equality Love Story.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

13 Comments

  • My former pastor told my friend to marry in order to get out of her abusive childhood home (instead of move out on your own-cause good Christian girls just don’t do that). She ended marrying a child molester.

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  • As a survivor of domestic abuse (now remarried to a wonderful man) I agree with what you wrote. I would add that when a man is the victim he has the additional layer of being told he needs to “Man up and be the spiritual head” of his household by the church. Who is he going to tell about the abuse in the church? Who is going to believe him? Abuse is abuse no matter what the gender of the victim.

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    • I’ve to admit I’ve not come across a man who admitted that he was being abused … society’s pressure for a man to be strong and in charge must play a big part.

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      • My son left an abusive marriage a year ago and has voiced just exactly what wrote.The shame messages he received from the church system was horrible…”you need to control you wife” when she was verbally abusing other people in church.He was training to become a youth pastor. He heard over and over the scripture about having his household in order. When his wife physically abused his, he felt it was his fault for not being the “spiritual head”of the house! Thank God he is out of both the church and his marriage!

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    • hi lisa, thanks for sharing this. that story from my friend who was abused is one of the most treasured on my site to me because so many of their stories are untold. i am glad your son is out and has found healing and freedom!

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  • I agree that it’s hard to get away from an abusive relationship, especially since there are wonderful moments in the relationship, and you feel that maybe you were making up those abusive moments. This is why I find that emotional abuse is so insidious … just because it doesn’t leave physical scars doesn’t mean that it isn’t as painful. What’s harder is watching an abusive relationship happening right before your eyes and not being able to rescue that person because she refuses to be rescued … uhm, sorry hope I didn’t offend anyone by that, but I found it so frustrating to be in that position.

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    • thanks, elizabeth. yes, emotional abuse is so insidious! and harder to leave from because of the lack of physical marks. and oh, it hurts when you see a friend unable to leave….always hope that that strength and courage comes over time. it sometimes does over the long haul. peace.

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    • I didn’t find your words offensive. I think though many people, unless you have been through it, do not understand how difficult the abuser and systems make it for you to leave. If you are married and have children, family court believes both parents should be involved, no matter how abusive. It’s an archaic and broken and corrupt system. And statistically, if you have children, 70% of abusers have full or part time custody of their children…..so family court will tether you together and often leaving escalates the violence and there is not support out there for dv victims, contrary to popular culture–in my county, for every 20 families needing shelter, they have space for 1–so you return to your abuser. Often when a victim goes to court, she is without legal counsel and the abuser has an attorney and the victim is once again abused. So “just leave” isn’t as easy. And again unless you have been through it. . the shame, humiliation, embarassment is crippling and then the system forcing you to be together and then there not being any help makes it a bleak reality for most victims. Oh and courts only recognize someone viciously beating you as domestic violence, that’s it.

      Reply

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