3 SIGNS SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS BEING ABUSED – AND HOW TO HELP
By Joanne Creary
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. It’s a good time to remind ourselves of why we, as Christ-followers, should care about this issue.
One in three women and one in four men will experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner (including shoving or pushing, slapping, or punching), according to the website of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Research shows these statistics are the same both inside and outside the church.
For many Christian women, experiencing violence in their homes is a heartbreaking reality. The next time you’re in church or in your women’s Bible study, look around you. Chances are, at least one of the women sitting close to you has suffered or is currently suffering at the hands of her spouse.
Take a moment to think about what it means that one in three women has experienced physical violence from an intimate partner. When I learned that statistic, I never looked at a group of women the same way again. I’d sit in church on a Sunday morning and look around me and wonder how many of the women sitting there with their husband’s arms casually draped around their shoulders were inwardly weeping. And I would sigh in my spirit and pray for them even as I sang the worship songs and listened to the sermon.
And that’s not even the whole picture! Domestic violence isn’t limited to physical acts of violence. It also includes other ways one partner exerts power and control over another, including using threats, emotional or psychological abuse, sexual violence, and economic or financial abuse. And while it’s true that men can also experience domestic abuse, 85% of victims are women.
Scripture’s Call to Act Justly and Love Mercy
The Scriptures have a lot to say about the way God feels about violence. Micah 6:8 asks, “…what does the Lord require of you?” The prophet gives us the answer: “To act justly and to love mercy.” Psalm 82:3-4 commands us to “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
Do we need stronger words than those to convince us that we should not turn a blind eye to the plight of those who are suffering among us, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel to take action on behalf of the “weak and the needy”?
It begins with the understanding that domestic violence is not simply a private matter, a quarrel between spouses. In fact, it can be dangerous for the person who is being abused when well-meaning people attempt to treat abuse as “a lover’s quarrel.” What makes domestic violence different is that it is a systematic attempt by one partner (most often the husband) to have his needs met, with no regard for the wishes or well-being of the other partner. It is sin, and at its core, it is putting oneself ahead of everything and everyone else, in a way that causes violence to the body and soul of the person he or she vowed to love and protect.
3 Signs to Watch For
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, some of the warning signs and behaviors of an abuser include extreme jealousy, possessiveness of the victim, verbal abuse, extremely controlling behavior, blaming the victim for anything bad that happens, controlling the finances, accusing the victim of flirting with others or having an affair, controlling the victim’s appearance and actions, demeaning the victim either privately or publicly, and embarrassing or humiliating the victim in front of others.
How can you tell if someone you know is suffering abuse in silence? Here are three signs to watch for and some helpful ways to respond.
1. The victim shows nervous or timid behavior.
An abused person is often fearful and overly anxious to please, especially when her spouse is present. If this is someone you’ve known for a long time, consider whether there have been changes in her personality. This could be a red flag. Has she become quieter and more withdrawn? Does she look anxiously in her spouse’s direction when she speaks? This may be a sign that something is wrong, and that you should pay close attention to the hidden meaning behind what your friend does say.
2. She blames herself for things that are not her fault.
Listen closely when she speaks about life at home. Most women who are being abused are either too afraid or too ashamed to speak directly about it, even to their closest friends. Instead, they may take the blame for what’s happening, saying such things as, “I wish I could be a better wife. My husband deserves better.” This is the time to gently ask for more information with a question like, “What does your husband say to make you think that?” Don’t be surprised if she finds it difficult to say more. It may take several conversations before she feels safe enough to open up and tell you what’s happening.
3. She is becoming Isolated from family and friends.
Often, an abuser will cut his spouse off from family and friends. Does she make excuses for not attending social gatherings? Perhaps she fears that he will get angry if she goes out with friends, or she’s anxious to hide the signs of abuse, such as bruises on her body. If you notice someone has slowly stopped accepting invitations or seems to be always accompanied by her spouse, it may be time to find an opportunity to ask what’s going on.
Some Practical Ways to Help
The most important thing you can do is to believe someone who has found the courage to tell you she is being abused at home. Assure her of your support and ask her how you can best support her. Although it may be difficult, resist the temptation to comment or ask her questions that may make her feel you think it’s her fault. Don’t say, “I can’t believe he would do that!” The truth is that many abusers are master manipulators and can be so charming in public that it’s hard to imagine them capable of the behavior their victim is describing.
Keep in mind that the victim of abuse has been subjected to extreme controlling behaviors that have robbed her of the ability to make her own decisions, and it will guide you to respond in ways that are not hurtful to her. The last thing she wants or needs is for someone else to pile guilt on her for behavior that’s outside of her control, or to try to force her to make decisions that she’s not ready to make.
The least helpful response is to ask her the common question, “Why don’t you just leave?” There may be many reasons why it’s difficult for her to leave. If she’s been abused emotionally, she may have come to believe that she’s not capable of being on her own; she may be completely dependent financially; she may be ambivalent about taking her children away from their father. The time when a woman decides to leave is often the time when she is in the most danger, as her abuser is likely to sense his control slipping and escalate his efforts at domination. What is most helpful is to tell her that you support her whether she decides to stay or leave.
Help her make a safety plan and encourage her to teach her children what to do in a crisis where they might need to get away quickly.
Be wise about advising her on where to seek the help she needs. Do not assume that your pastor or the elders in your church are the best people to turn to for counsel or help. Many are not trained in handling domestic violence and may cause more harm with their efforts to help. Unless you’re sure your church has a well-informed program to address domestic violence, help her instead to find community resources to get the help she needs.
Don’t underestimate the value of the support you can offer: keeping her confidence, praying with her, and helping her access resources that can meet her practical needs. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother [or sister] is born for a time of adversity.” Each of us can be a sister in Christ to the “weak and needy” women in our midst by showing them His love and mercy.