It is widespread for survivors of psychological abuse to blame themselves. The abuser blamed all the relationship issues on the survivor, and it is very easy to come into agreement with a false narrative about ourselves. When someone berates us by highlighting our character defects, and we know we are a flawed human being, it is easy to slowly begin taking the blame and letting the abuser entirely off the hook for their toxic behaviors.
What does it look like when a survivor of abuse blames themselves? They say things like, “I did make mistakes in the relationship” or “I know I am not easy to get along with.” These statements might be accurate, but we have to look at the context and environment of the relationship.
Abusers push their targets to behave in ways that are abnormal to the target’s personality.
In the case of childhood abuse, toxic parents push children and teens to an emotional and physical breaking point. As adults, the same goes for toxic partners, family members, co-workers, and religious leaders.
Each abuser revels in their ability to get the target to fall apart or lash out.
When a survivor has either of these emotional responses and everything in between, the abuser feels validated in their complaints against the victim. The spotlight of responsibility has shifted, and it lands squarely on the survivor.
Blaming ourselves is a normal stage that I believe all survivors must address at some point in their recovery. Telling ourselves how stupid we were for falling for a toxic person doesn’t help our healing. Words are powerful, and our inner dialogue will either help or hinder our recovery progress.
As tempting as it is to want to focus on what you did wrong in the relationship, I am going to ask that we hold off on that discussion until you’ve reached Stage Five: Restoration in my book Healing from Hidden Abuse.
Looking at your part too early in the recovery journey is harmful to your healing. That may seem counterintuitive, but trust me when I say that early in the process, any self-reflection is going to be tainted by the abuser’s voice, words, judgments of you, and their lies about your value. In my counseling practice as a trauma therapist, I have seen this play out time and time again. My clients know that I push this particular self-reflection conversation away from our early work and leave it for later in the healing process. I do this so any false guilt and shame from the abuser have already been adequately addressed and deprogrammed.
To recap, victims of psychological abuse blame themselves because the abuser pushed all responsibility onto the victim, and it’s easy to take on lies about ourselves when it’s directed at us by someone we once trusted.
Keep Dreaming Big!
I know what love-bombing is
I know what idealizing means
I know that “gaslighting” was not just a movie
I know where “hoovering” gets its name
I know what it’s like to be “projected” on
I know that being “mirrored” doesn’t involve an actual mirror
I know what it’s like to be lied to
I know what it’s like to feel trapped
I know and have experienced being “hollowed”
I know and can recognize “flying monkeys”
I know what “intermittent reinforcement” is
I know what it feels like to be devalued
I know what it feels like to be disrespected
I know what it feels like to not be cherished
I know what it’s like to be criticized and condemned
I know what it’s like to be spoken to in a condescending tone
I know what it feels like to be emotionally abandoned
I know what it’s like to see my children witness psychological abuse
I know what it’s like to not do anything right no matter how hard you try
I know that a “smear campaign” happens outside of the political arena
I know that drama isn’t always on stage
I know what a lack of empathy in a person looks like
I know that life-sucking vampires really exist
I know what it’s like to see a toddler in a grown man’s body
I know that “discard” has nothing to do with a deck of cards
I know how important “NO CONTACT” is
I know that at times “detached contact” is best
I know what boundaries are and that they were completely disregarded
I know that abuse doesn’t always leave scars and bruises
I know what it’s like to see evil in human form
I know that “Jekyl and Hyde” is not just a great musical
I know what a “mask” is and have seen it taken on and off
I know what codependency is and realized I became one
I know what “covert” and “overt” are
I know what it feels like to “walk on egg-shells”
I know what it feels like to think you’re going crazy
I know that “triangulating” is not a symbol played in music class
I know what it feels like to stop trusting people
I know what it feels like to be skeptical of everyone
I know what it feels like to be anxious all of the time
I know what it feels like to be isolated and alone
I know what it’s like to be controlled
I know what it’s like to want to be perfect
I know what it feels like to be a puppet on a string
I know when my prayers changed
I know what it feels like to break free
I know what it feels like to climb out of the pit of despair
I know what it feels like to trust my judgement again
I know what it feels like to educate myself on what I’ve experienced
I know what it feels like to peel back painful but necessary layers of healing
I know what it feels like to not be consumed with anxiety
I know what it feels like to smile
I know what joy feels like when it enters your soul again
I know what it feels like to spend time with my family and friends again
I know what it feels like to restore my relationship with my children
I know and have witnessed my children healing from psychological abuse
I know what it’s like to be independent again and financially not tied to anyone
I know what it’s like to care for my well-being
I know what it’s like to not be depressed
I know what it feels like to be hopeful for mine and my kids future
I know what it’s like to exercise and eat right
I know what it feels like to breathe again
I know what it’s like to not allow a person to signify my worth and beauty
I know what strength and courage look like
I know what it’s like to learn to love again
I know that God loves me…no matter what
I know I can be healed
I know I can be redeemed
I know I can be restored
I know I am a daughter of the Most High
I know I don’t worry about people judging me
I know I no longer judge people who are in/or have been in toxic relationships
I know I no longer judge anyone who chooses divorce
I know I have been there
I know someone needs to hear my story…BEAUTY FROM ASHES
Pass it on….
Because of the Narcissist, I know by Monica Dane, Certified Life Coach. Monica Dane Coaching – monicadane.com
As a therapist and advocate who specializes in recovery from abuse, I have been witness to many stories of how survivors of abuse were treated by their church elders and pastors. I can tell you that some church leadership understands the complexities of domestic abuse, but sadly, many more leaders are doing incredible harm to female and male survivors. I do not believe the damage is always intentional, but rather stems from commonly held ideals that are ultimately creating environments where abusers are given “grace-passes” and the victims are left carrying the full responsibility for saving their marriages.
There appears to be significant blind spots within the western evangelical church when it comes to abuse and how leaders are to effectively counsel within the context of toxic marriages and abusive people. I hope to highlight a few of the areas that seem to stumble most church leaders. I am doing this not to bring shame or condemnation to pastors and church staff, but I hope open discussions will continue to occur. Survivors of abuse deserve to receive safe and informed care from their religious leadership. Unfortunately, this is not currently happening in many of our houses of worship in the United States.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Magical thinking.
The main issue I have observed is that far too many congregation leaders are teaching a lot about what God can do to change the abuser’s heart and far less instruction on what the abuser must do to be a reflection of Christ’s character to his or her family. The focus is placed on everyone but the abuser. The responsibility of changed behaviors is not where it needs to be, but rather deflected outward and away from the source of pain; the abuser.
Leaders are telling survivors that they must pray more if they want to see their abuser changed, that it is their duty as a wife or husband to remain steadfastly committed like Hosea did to Gomer in the Bible, and that God can change anyone if enough people are praying. Where are the teachings about the abuser repenting and permanently turning away from their harmful lifestyle? Where are the teachings about natural consequences when we mistreat other people? Where are teachings about personal accountability for a changed life? Instead the survivor, and even God, are held out as the only tools of how the abuser will be redeemed and made more Christ-like, even as the abuser does absolutely nothing concrete to be different. It leaves domestic abusers (both male and female) ultimately off the hook and everyone around them left to adjust to their poisonous behaviors.
The idea of wanting change for an abuser, when they themselves put no action towards healing, almost borders on magical thinking.
I recently was in a church lobby and a few people were standing around excitedly talking about a well-known public figure who exhibits abusive behaviors. One person said, “God is going to get a hold of him!” and another said, “He doesn’t know it yet, but God has a great plan for his life.” Of course I had to interject and ask what the abuser might think about God getting a hold of him. I asked what evidence can we see of a changed and repented heart from this particular toxic individual. I shared with them that it concerned me greatly that this small group of people in the lobby wanted salvation and healing for the abuser more than the abuser himself may even want it. At what point have Christians crossed over into dangerous wishful thinking that inhibits their ability to have eyes to see and ears to hear?
There is something very naive and unhealthy about projecting positive character traits on abusers that they do not possess and may have no interest in obtaining. If they did the hard work to become a new creation, then sure, we could join them in celebrating. But to hold out hope for an abuser who shows no lasting signs of change is like hoping we walk out our front door to a brand new sports car but we refuse to show up to work every day. It’s honestly embarrassing that the collective church will not see people for exactly who they are in their current state, hope and pray for more, but not be blinded to what is right in front of them. We will not change an abuser simply by wishing for it to be true. Sanctification is a process and one that the abuser absolutely must be a part of on a daily basis.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? Power.
Power is a strong driver for people to remain in denial about abuse going on around them. When toxic people have the ability to get us what we want, we are sadly more willing sometimes to look the other way of character traits that might be unsavory. Many times the worst abusers at home are the same individuals who are showing up to church every time the doors are open. They are seen as pillars in the community, or at least useful to the church in some form or fashion. These powerful abusers are given a quiet pass when concerns are raised about their treatment of their families. People say things such as, “I know him, he would never do the things his wife told the pastor.” You can change the gender and the message is still the same when the abuser is a female. Power or the acquisition of something church leadership wants will, and has, caused many to justify abusive behaviors. They often utilize the magical thinking I mentioned above and decide that the abuser will get better with God’s help, even as the abuser shows no signs of authentically seeking God at all.
Why won’t the church recognize abuse? The covenant of marriage is being held in higher regard than the safety of a spouse and children within an abusive marriage.
I know churches where someone can repent of horrendous crimes against people and these individuals will be received within a congregation family but another church member discusses dissolving their marriage because of abuse, and that person will be literally shunned by church leadership and other members. The concept of marriage is held to such a high standard that in some places of worship, it does not matter that evil is being perpetrated within the walls of the family home. Why do some church leaders cling so tightly to the idea of all marriages remaining intact? I think there are two reasons and the first is that sometimes radical things do happen and terrible marriages are restored. Harmful behaviors are addressed and forever changed. Church leaders love those stories of how one of their ministries or their own counsel redeemed a family that looked hopeless. However, not all toxic marriages will go through a 180 shift. Just like not all prayers for a sick person will result in a miraculous and spontaneous healing. Sometimes the body dies and some marriages die as well. Just like the fact that we are not seeing resurrections of bodies at hospitals all over the country, we may not see resurrections of marriages that are abusive when the abuser does not do the hard work to bring lastly healing to his or her family.
The second reason that churches are holding tight to saving marriages, even when one spouse is literally dying within the poisonous environment, is because some church leaders believe that without strong marriages as a foundation, our country is on a collision course with doom. These leaders want to hold onto the concept of the traditional marriage so much that they are literally willing to pretend a marriage is reflecting God’s will even when they know good and well the marriage is a fragile house of cards. As long as it looks good from the outside, right? This sort of thinking perpetuates the fake billboard living that many complain about in regards to modern Christianity.
What can we do when we are worried about the church and its response, or lack of, to abuse in marriages? We first educate ourselves and then we set out to educate our local church leaders. We find books that have been helpful in our journey to understand what abuse looks like in all its forms and we share those books with church leaders. We walk along side a survivor of abuse and tell him or her that we will not spiritually abuse them as well. We will not use Scripture to justify the harm that is being done to them and we will not place the burden of change on the survivor either.
The church should be a sanctuary of hope and healing. Until abuse within Christian marriages is properly handled by all churches in America, we are failing in our calling to carry each other’s burdens and be the hands and feet of a God of justice.
Keep dreaming big!
Bestselling Author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through The Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse
When a close friend shares with you that the pastor made uninvited sexual advances towards her and you argue that the pastor is a godly man and wouldn’t do such a thing, you just don’t care enough about protecting people against abuse in a religious community.
When you see bruises on your sister’s arm and know that her husband has a history of physically hurting her and you choose to not ask her about the bruises, you just don’t care enough to make things messy within the family.
When your young child tells you that the female babysitter is making him do things that are “scary” and you ignore his words because it’s more convenient for you to keep using the same sitter, you just don’t care enough to protect your child from harm.
When you see a co-worker being lied about and their career damaged because of the toxic behaviors of others, you just don’t care enough about workplace abuse to be part of the solution to stopping it.
When you know a friend plays psychologically abusive mind games with his girlfriend and is obviously causing her intense emotional distress, you just don’t care enough to stand up to the abuser and tell him you see the games he plays.
When you watch several family members scapegoat another member to the point of causing anxiety for the person, you just don’t care enough to be an ally to the abused individual because you don’t want to be targeted too.
When you know your friend’s wife chronically belittles and berates him to the point of causing him to be depressed, you just don’t care enough to tell him that he deserves to be treated better.
When you look the other way to abuse, exploitation, and discrimination you simply just don’t care enough.
Will you care enough when the tide of life shifts and you are the target?
Will someone else care enough about you and intervene?
What have you recently done to show that you are willing to stand in the gap for another person?
Or what have you done to send the message that you just don’t care?
What are you willing to do to stop abuse in all its forms?
Your answers to these questions will help shape the type of communities we all reside within.
Survivors, know that many of us do care. Many of us work tirelessly to loudly ring the warning bell that abusers walk among us. Many of us love you as sisters and brothers. Many of us believe that bad things did happen and were covered up by people who should have stood up for you. Many of us are you, a survivor, too.