What not to say: "I understand how you feel"

Survivors and victims of domestic abuse constantly tell the Hear Believe Act Project how they feel. But we cannot presume to know how they feel, even if we might also be a survivor of domestic abuse. Although most cases have painfully familiar themes, every case of abuse has it's own specific idiosyncracies.

They feel chained up - imprisoned. Sometimes in their own home. Sometimes in a relationship they know is toxic yet they cannot escape. In one case an abuser blocked their victim’s car with their own car so the victim could not drive away. In another case the abuser cancelled the credit card of his victim - six times in one year, corresponding with the six times she felt so afraid she had to go to her parent’s house. Frequently we hear that abusers tell their victims that the abuser will hire a lawyer and get the courts to give sole access/parenting of their children because they are mentally unwell, or they are unsafe in some way, for instance and the victims believe this and will not leave for fear of losing access to their children. If we have not been in these situations or many like them we cannot possibly understand how it feels.

They feel guilty - their abuser tells them it is their fault. Commonly we hear that abusers tell them and they believe that it is how they are - they are a bad mother, they are worldly, they are ugly, they are a bad money manager, they are a bad wife for example. When someone you love keeps telling you this you come to believe them. One woman told me 14 years after separating from her abuser that she still believed the things he told her - that she was worthless and that the only people who would be friends with her would do it out of pity. Unfortunately other people also perpetuate the guilt. They tell the victim that the abuser is such a nice person and that they must be doing something wrong to attract or deserve the abuse. When the survivor leaves the abuser others around them tell them that they are scripturally wrong to do it, or that they are sinning badly. They tell them that they are the reason the abuser is sad, depressed or even suicidal. For the victim who more than likely loves the abuser, after all that is why they are in the relationship, this just makes them feel more guilty. If you’ve not been in this situation you can’t understand how the survivor or victim feels.

They feel that they are at wits end and that whatever they do they cannot seem to please him. When he throws the meal at them, she believes that it is because she is such a bad cook, or she is inadequate for not being able to get the meal made in time for when he came home from work or whatever his quibble may be with it on that day. Whatever she tries to do to desperately fit the cooking in around the children, and perhaps her job or the other things she must do to please the abuser, she never seems to get the meal he wants prepared just right, or on time. She curtails activities that might be much more important than having a perfect meal or a meal at a certain time, just to try to please him, but never seems to be able to. Or, he tells her that she is fat and ugly so she diets with commitment and determination and when she loses weight he tells her that her clothes look old and dowdy. Or, he tells her she is not being a spiritual woman and when she takes it to heart and organises the family to do some family bible study he accuses her of usurping his position as head of the house. Unless we have lived in this situation of extreme uncertainty and fear of making mistakes we cannot possibly understand how it feels.

They feel that they cannot say what they think. Rather than speaking the truth victims find they need to keep quiet to keep the peace. Accommodating the abuser is much easier than worrying about what will lead to an eruption of the abuser’s anger. They are forced to stay quiet with white knuckles and gritted teeth while the abuser uses illegal and aggressive driving to intimidate and provoke fear. They begin to question themselves and their own needs more than they trust their own knowledge. Rather than being able to have adult conversations about small decisions or problems they cower and back down from any sort of conflict and this begins to affect their whole demeanour even outside of the relationship. Unless we have lived in situations where everyone needs to walk on egg-shells to avoid the wrath of an abuser we do not know how this psychological control feels.

What can we say?

We can say that we are concerned for their safety.

We can say that if they ever decide to leave we will help them find a safe place to go and make sure they have the things they need.

We can say that we believe them and will seek to get the help that they need - help is available and we will help them find it and support them to get it.

We can say that the abuser is wrong to treat them like that and that the teaching of Christ is that husbands should love their wives as their own body - someone doing that does not deserve our respect and God does not ask us to revere them.

We can say that it is not their fault and point out where the abuser is making choices. He doesn't do this with everybody - only those he wishes to denigrate and control and probably only at home with the "door closed".

We can say that they might consider the impact of these unChristlike behaviours on their children who may be being taught disrespect for women, or that abusive behaviours are normal.

If this article raises concerns you have about domestic violence in your own life or those around you can call 1800RESPECT (If in Australia) or similar services in other countries. There is also a list of support services on this website including Christadelphian Support Services.

Photo credit: Talking on the Phone, Marjan Lazarevski

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