Red Flags of an Abusive Relationship

Morning friend,

I hope by now you’ve had a chance to watch the movie Women Talking. It is an important movie about a group of women thinking through the question, “How are we going to respond to the abuse, injustice, deceit, and oppression we’ve all experienced.” Many of you have also watched the documentary Shiny Happy People, which is a 4 part series on the Duggar family and their involvement with Bill Gothard’s Institute of Basic Life Principles (IBLP), as well as those who have left the organization, the Duggar family, and sometimes even the faith because of the abuse they experienced. 

It’s important as women we learn to articulate our feelings, think our own thoughts, and come to our own decisions. The Patriarchal teaching throughout these two shows illustrates the subordination of women to the roles of servant, caregiver, and mother. Thinking, discerning, leading, and deciding is a man’s privilege. But is that God’s design or man’s creation? Is the curse of Genesis 3:16 proscriptive for all future relationships or descriptive of the consequences of the fall? 

Being able to recognize the signs of unhealthy teaching and leadership is crucial to our growth and maturity as people. Therefore, let’s have a conversation about some of the red flags that warn you that an organization or a person is unhealthy or toxic. Here’s one: Women are not equal partners but are silenced and objectified into “roles” to perform. What other red flags do you notice?

Last, Domestic Violence Awareness Month is coming in October, and because of these shows more and more women are beginning to recognize themselves in a toxic and oppressive marriage. I’m going to republish a blog I wrote a few years ago so that we can be prepared to know how to respond wisely when a woman shares how she’s struggling and how we might help.

Question: How do you help a friend in a destructive marriage who may not be strong enough to help herself?

Answer: This is a great question because as I read through all of your responses to this blog, that’s exactly what many of you do for one another. Sometimes a person doesn’t feel strong enough to stand up against abusive behavior, protect her children, or leave an abusive marriage. As her friend, we know she’s in trouble, but we often feel helpless to do anything. Here are five things I think we can all do to help her build strength.

1. Listen hard, speak little. People who disclose problems at home usually feel a great deal of shame. It’s already difficult for them to talk about it but when we jump in with our response or offer our solution like “You should call 911, or leave him” we can shut her down.

Proverbs reminds us, “He who answers before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). Instead of offering answers, ask questions. “What do you need? How can I help? What do you think your next step could be?”

Once she puts her problem into words in the presence of a caring friend, an abused woman often gets clearer and she begins to feel empowered to work towards solutions.

2. Validate her experience. It’s normal to feel afraid to tell a family secret. She might blame herself for her partner’s abusive behaviors. She might say, “I should have been more submissive” or “I shouldn’t have argued with him.” Simply respond with a statement such as, “Gee, I haven’t been submissive at times,” or “I argue with my husband and he doesn’t act that way towards me.”

Also be careful not to minimize her experience, trivialize, or rationalize things away. Saying things like, “At least he makes a good living or doesn’t hit you” or “I can’t believe what you’re saying”, or “He seems like such a nice guy or godly man” can be hurtful, and makes her question her own perceptions.

Instead, you can say things like, “It was good that you told someone.” Or “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but telling someone is the first step to getting help.” Or “No matter how much you disappoint or upset your husband you don’t deserve to be treated this way.”

3. Pray. We often forget how potent prayer is and even when we don’t know the whole story, God does. Sometimes we feel helpless to really know what to do in these kinds of situations. Prayer is an important reminder that God is in charge and loves both the abused and the abuser. We must bring the situation before God daily, asking Him to intervene in a way that we cannot imagine. Pray that God will protect her and give her strength, wisdom, and courage to act wisely in her marriage.

4. Offer tangible help. James says, “Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing and you say, ‘Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well’ – but then you don't give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, it isn't enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn't show itself by good deeds is no faith at all – it is dead and useless” (James 2:16,17).

She may not be where you’d like her to be in terms of readiness to take constructive action, but where is she right now? Does she need medical attention? Counseling help? Legal aid? A safe place to live? Sometimes people need concrete support to break free from abusive patterns and it takes the loving and tangible resources of a community of people to help someone. The Good Samaritan didn’t just pray, he also carted the broken and battered person to the inn and paid for his care.

5. Advocate and/or report where needed and appropriate. If you are a mandated reporter and a child discloses that he/she has been a victim of abuse, you must report this disclosure to the proper authorities. However, an adult victim of spousal abuse needs an advocate too. Someone who will come alongside her and speak with community agencies, attend legal proceedings and help communicate with church leaders in order to have the best possible hope for repentance, healing, and reconciliation of the family.

It isn’t always easy to stand beside a woman who is ambivalent about what she needs to do in her marriage. It can be frustrating and there can be setbacks where she puts her hope in change where there is no evidence of change. But we have to remember we can’t take responsibility for the outcome, all we can do is what God calls us to do and that is to care, to pray, to listen, and to equip her to take the steps she will need to take to better steward her life.

I have a framed card in my office that says,

“On the street, I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of a decent meal. I became angry and said to God: Why did you permit this? Why don’t you do something about it?

For a while God said nothing. That night He replied quite suddenly: I certainly did something about it – I made you.”

Edmund Burke once said, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men (and women) do nothing”.

We may not be able to do everything needed to stem the tide of violence at home, but we certainly can do something. I’m encouraged that you want to stand with your friend through her journey of getting stronger and healthier.

Friend, what else would help you feel supported, encouraged, and strengthened so that you are better equipped to protect yourself and your children?

10 Comments

  1. Charlie on August 31, 2023 at 9:20 am

    If he were confronted by someone who has proof or seen his actions because he keeps telling me I am delusional and there is no logic in what I’m feeling or seeing and I know it is true but there is no one else to lay it on the table to call for admittance and repentance ! I can’t prove it therefore I don’t feel I should leave !! I feel as though if he were called out by someone else he would have to deal with it .

    • Leslie Vernick on September 1, 2023 at 7:51 pm

      Charlie: Have you talked with someone about what he’s doing? Do they say you’re delusional? I find it hard for women to trust their own judgements. They are looking for someone to tell them “That’s not OK”. But what if you just said, “That’s not okay.” You’re looking for validation, I get it, but do you think you’re delusional? Have you been delusional in other areas besides calling him out? We easily get intimidated into not trusting our own perceptions of things. And it’s working. You’re not taking action on your own behalf because you don’t believe you can without side validation. But is that true?

    • Diane Fox on September 2, 2023 at 3:04 pm

      Charlie,
      Ask yourself…..If you were someone else looking at you and this relationship from the outside, what would you tell yourself?

      That’s the question my counselor recently asked me earlier this week. It made me take a step back and look at things differently.

      Do you think you’re delusional? I’m guessing….No! Does anybody else think that of you? Probably not!

      I was told that I was “crazy and sick in the head”. I’m neither of those! Nobody else, in any of my relationships, thinks that of me; it was just my husband.

      My marriage was a destructive and we are not longer married. Being away from him doesn’t make things instantly better, Our divorce brought along other challenges. It’s not an easy journey but I’m slowly making progress.

      Trust your judgement and intuition.

  2. Barbara Bjelland on August 31, 2023 at 10:03 pm

    Thanks!

  3. Elizabeth on September 2, 2023 at 2:47 am

    Thank you Leslie for your ministry! Please keep the great & useful content coming!!

  4. Karen on September 2, 2023 at 6:39 am

    In the American court system, we follow, “Innocent until proven guilty.” I was in a fellowship with an emotionally abusive and manipulative pastor for 14 years…my intuition told me something was wrong. He was very charismatic, charming and probably a genius…but also a sexual predator…unbeknownst to us. He lied and did all kinds of antics to make us look like we were in the wrong to cover his own actions. I learned the hard way that I didn’t need to prove him, “guilty,” as in a court of law. My own intuition was trustworthy. It has been 20+ years since I left. He is quite elderly now and still up to his antics, I am told. You have plenty of proof. I am not saying you should decide to leave the marriage. I am saying that you probably have more than sufficient evidence from your own personal experience that something is definitely “off” in your marriage relationship.

    • Leslie Vernick on September 2, 2023 at 12:38 pm

      Karen, agreed. Women need to learn that their perceptions and intuitions are warning bells and often we can’t PROVE something to the legal extent required for someone to go to jail, but we “know” enough to not trust them, believe them, befriend them or marry them.

  5. Karen on September 5, 2023 at 6:52 am

    So true! I learned that too late in some ways, but now we can share with others.

  6. Margery on September 5, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    If the “clue phone ” rings pick it up.
    Learn to trust your judgement of behavior in small ways… try it out in more neutral relationships, practice till you get stronger. Take the time to feel your own feelings. Let the numbness go. No one can see inside your mind and heart,

  7. Margery on October 24, 2023 at 5:32 pm

    I hesitate to comment… having been conditioned by upbringing and immaturity to believe the words spoken to me by my h. I spent years believing and or second guessing my perceptions. Needing food and shelter for my large family I rode the roller coaster. From time to time I did get a glimpse of reality but without a support system I prayed and hung on for dear life. But it cost me .Financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually I have had to learn by trial and error many of the basic lessons presented here. Trust God and His grace to lead you and guide you. This site is one of His road markers.
    God bless you, You are worth it🙏🏻

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