The greatest hits of what NOT to say to survivors of Domestic and Family Violence. And why it matter
So many women* have suffered hurt and harm at the hands of an abusive husband only to be further shamed and damaged when they present to their church for help.
Talking with a victim about the trauma of their domestic abuse is the equivalent of undertaking interpersonal / emotional / psychological surgery. It places the survivor in an extremely vulnerable position. The interpersonal surgeon must be skilled to understand the abusive dynamics, survey the brokenness, help clear out the damage, and in time, apply balm for healing.
The unskilled surgeon, attempting the same task, causes further trauma by opening up wounds, failing to set right what was broken, and damaging what was well. When the unskilled surgeon is a church leader, spiritual abuse from a second perpetrator is added to the burden of domestic abuse that has already been endured.
I’ve talked with many survivors of Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) over the years. With their permission, here is the worst of what they heard from the unskilled surgeons of the church variety, and why it is so deeply harmful. I share it here for the education of the church, and to stand in solidarity with survivors. 1. “How did you provoke him?”
Um… where do I start with this one… His behaviour is his responsibility. Saying she provoked him is like saying that the teller at the bank provoked the robbery. Please.
2. “It takes two to tango.”
No, no it doesn’t. Abusive people play the music then tango just fine on their own. Even while you’re begging them to stop, they tango on. They might grab you and force you to tango with them, but that’s about the only time that there’s two tangoing on this one. 3. “The children need a father.” Correction: the children need someone who behaves like a father should. Children need home to be a safe place. Children need a father who demonstrates love and respect towards their mother. This isn’t in addition to fathering; this IS fathering. Children need peace, kindness, and unconditional love. They need to build an experience bank, that day after day, they will be protected and nurtured, not harmed and threatened. But the reality is that not every child has a father like that. Experts agree that removing a child from violence, or removing violence from a child, is the best course of action. 4. “Him? Really? But he’s such a nice guy!” Yeah, a lot of the time he certainly appears like that. Abusive people aren’t abusive all the time. There’s plenty of time when they’re charming, helpful, and friendly. They’ll help you out, wear a suit to leaders meetings, and crack jokes at parties. People who commit acts of domestic abuse aren’t indiscriminately abusive. They don’t treat their boss and friends the same way they treat their wife. That’s part of how hideous DFV is. You know how you behave differently in different environments? So do abusers. 5. “You should go to couples counselling.“ Well…. yes and no. Traditional couples counselling, focusing equally on each party’s responsibility in the relationship, will just empower the abuser and perpetuate the abuse. Couples counselling where violence isn’t present asks for vulnerability and problem solving. DFV counselling asks for accountability and safety. They’re quite different. Couples counselling with an experienced DFV practitioner who can read and understand the dynamic could be helpful, however its tough to both find the right counselor and get the perpetrator to go. 6. “Are you aware you’re making it awkward for everyone around you?” (Oh for crying out loud. Are there enough facepalms in the world for this one? And yes, it has been said. By a church leader.) He’s responsible for what he has done. Survivors are just trying to keep on surviving. Awkwardness that others are feeling is either because he hasn’t yet been ejected from the community, or because the community members are ok with violence. 7. “But you’re a strong woman…” This one’s more insidious. It can sound like a compliment, but it’s not. It buys into the victim-blaming narrative that if she was a victim of abuse, then she must have somehow invited or allowed the abuse to happen. It’s like saying to a passenger in a car crash “but you’re a safe driver.” It’s peripheral at best, and unreasonably demanding at worst. Abuse is an expression of the abuser’s desire for power and control, not a comment on the strength of the victim. 8. “If it’s as bad as you claim, where’s the restraining order?” Restraining orders (varying by name in different jurisdictions: Apprehended Violence Order, Domestic Violence Order, etc) can be useful in some situations. In many situations, however, they can trigger further harm. There are a few key events are likely to cause a spike in domestic violence. Taking out a restraining order, ironically, is one of them (the others are pregnancy, and when she leaves him). Many survivors avoid the restraining order to avoid further violence. Few restraining orders have been granted for emotional, verbal or financial violence. Most are only in response to physical and sexual violence, which are usually the types of violence that most closely precede murder. Asking a survivor why they don’t have a restraining order can suggest that it is the only valid proof that violence has occurred, or that it marks a threshold only after which the violence will be taken seriously. Emotional and Verbal violence (also known as abuse on the inside) almost always occur before physical or sexual violence (abuse on the outside), and they deserve to be taken just as seriously. 9. “Isn’t marriage important to you?” This one is such a subversion of the gospel. (Well, they all are really.) If someone has sought safety from a partner due to their abuse, talking to them about ‘biblical marriage’ just makes it clear that you haven’t understood what has happened. Most survivors of abuse have fought hard, for years, for their marriage. They value marriage so highly that they stuck it out through unthinkable treatment. They value marriage so highly that they did everything they could to work it out. They value marriage so highly that they are prepared to be insulted, criticized, mocked, shoved, restricted, stalked, hit, or raped before conceding that that’s not marriage. They value marriage so highly that they then refuse to call ongoing abuse a true biblical marriage. They value marriage so highly that they will not allow their children to grow up thinking that abuse is part of marriage. There is someone you should be talking to about biblical marriage. But it isn’t the survivor. 10. “God hates divorce.” He sure does. But not in the way you might think. The well-meaning (read: incompetent) person who says this might think that the institution of marriage is more important than the people in it. (We know institutions are never more important than the people in them, right? Good.) God does hate divorce. God hates the selfishness, the abuse, the narcissism, the control, the neglect, the disrespect, and the failure to serve and love that combines to undo a marriage. It’s not the legal divorce that’s the problem; it’s the perpetrator’s ongoing and deliberate failure to love and cherish like he promised. Divorce is the eventual natural consequence of his covenant-breaking actions. In Malachi 2:16, God speaks with great clarity to perpetrators: “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect.” While many hold that sexual infidelity is the only grounds for divorce, the bible gives other examples. God requires his people to divorce in Ezra 9 and 10 for the sake of their holiness and purity. And in Jeremiah 3, we read that God himself is divorced from Israel, due to Israel’s failure to uphold their covenant. So why do these things get said? Here’s some ideas about why those unskilled surgeons might operate the way they do:
They still have a simplistic view of humanity. The day that you discover that nice people can do awful things is a schema-smashing day. It’s a welcome-to-adulthood, the-world-is-all-kinds-of-messed-up, Christians-can-do-horrible-things kind of day. Not everyone can handle that.
They’re suffering or perpetrating abuse themselves, and they can’t bear to admit abuse in anyone else’s family, because it might mean they’ll have to acknowledge the abuse in their own family.
They suffered abuse as a child, but because that’s all they knew, abuse seems normal. To admit that it wasn’t normal sends the whole story of their childhood into another dimension. Pretty confronting. So confronting that denial often takes over.
They’ve never learned at theological college, or in life, what real abuse is. With no understanding of what it is, how it manifests, what drives it, and the destruction is causes, how can they care well for a victim of such insidious and hidden mistreatment?
And sometimes it feels like people who say these incompetent and harmful things genuinely don’t know that there is gospel in the mess. They think the victim deserves the mess, or that people need to be tidy before they’ve earned compassion. Lord, have mercy.
So if you’re a survivor and anyone says stuff like this, feel free to place them firmly in the ‘They don’t get it’ basket for now, and move on with your recovery. Surround yourself with the people that do get it. They’re the life-givers. They’re the ones being Jesus.
If you’re a church leader and you’ve said things like this, you’ve got some work to do.
Stay tuned. The best of what to say to survivors is coming soon.
*Fixing Her Eyes understands Domestic and Family Violence to be a deeply gendered problem. However, Fixing her Eyes also recognizes and stands with victims and survivors where the gender pattern differs.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT. If you are in immediate danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia).
Family and domestic violence support services:
1800 Respect national helpline: 1800 737 732
Women's Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
Men's Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Lifeline (24 hour crisis line): 131 114
Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277
To further equip and educate your church, Common Grace offers SAFER, a free online resource for churches to address Domestic and Family Violence in their midst. Donate to the DFV work of Common Grace here.
Kylie Maddox Pidgeon, and members of the DFV team from Common Grace regularly spend time working with churches to prevent and address domestic and family violence.
Kylie is a Christian Psychologist whose client demographic includes perpetrators and survivors of Family Violence. Kylie is a graduate of SMBC.