Chapter 1 of Not Under Bondage — WHAT IS ABUSE?

The term domestic abuse is used in this book to refer to a pattern of behavior where one adult abuses another adult and the two are (or have been) partnered intimately. An abuser abuses power in a relationship at the expense of the victim. This book mostly calls the person who has been maltreated a “victim”, although sometimes it uses the term “survivor”.  The terms are somewhat interchangeable: all victims are survivors, even while they are still living in the abuse.

Some people may feel uncomfortable at the word victim. They are wary of encouraging a “victim mentality” — an attitude of chronically blaming others, of stagnating in self-pity and grudging resentment. This book does not use the term “victim” to promote such attitudes (nor to imply that victims/survivors take such attitudes!). Rather, it calls a spade a spade because people who have been maltreated will do well to recognize the stark, precise methods by which they have been abused if they are to become astute and vigorous survivors. (Christ said we should be as wise as serpents and harmless as doves.)

The terms victim and abuser are consistent with the Bible. The politically correct would have us label the behavior rather than the person. They say, for example, that instead of calling someone a “perpetrator” we should say “one who commits abuse” and instead of “victim” we should say “one who experiences abuse”. Such politically correct expressions are unwieldy. The Bible often labels sinners by their behavior (viz. the book of Proverbs), so I have employed a similar approach. 

The expression “domestic abuse” is employed in this book, rather than the alternative terms “battering”, “domestic violence” or “family violence”.  This is because “abuse” is easier for many victims to identify with. In most people’s minds, the term “violence” signifies only physical violence, but domestic abuse can include emotional, social, financial and other types of mistreatment, and may not even involve physical violence.

The gender question

Both men and women can be victims and perpetrators of abuse. This book seeks to support those who are victims, no matter what their gender. However, for reasons outlined below I have chosen to use “she” (or “you”) for victims and “he” for perpetrators. If you are a male victim (or know male victims of abuse), you should replace these pronouns with the appropriate ones.

Research on intimate partner abuse has primarily examined physical violence. Some of these studies have also asked abut the broader spectrum of abuse (emotional, financial, social abuse, etc.). This means that relationships containing violence have been studied more thoroughly than relationships where physical violence is absent. Therefore the following four paragraphs focus on physically violent relationships. But it should be borne in mind that wherever there is a pattern of physical abuse, other forms of abuse invariably occur alongside the physical.

Much evidence exists to show that women are more frequently the victims of domestic violence and men are more frequently the perpetrators. The World Health Organization has found that “The overwhelming burden of partner violence is born by women at the hands of men. In 48 population-based surveys from around the world, between ten and sixty-nine percent of women reported being physically assaulted by an intimate male partner at some point in their lives.” (The rates vary from country to country.)

While some victims of domestic violence are male, the proportion of male victims appears to be small. For example, in the USA, 25% of women say they have been raped and/or physically assaulted by a current or former intimate partner or date during their lifetime; the comparable figure for men is 8%. In 2001, 85% of victimizations by intimate partners were against women.

While there are some genuine male victims, many instances where females attack males are marked by a long prior history of the man having abused the woman. In such cases, the woman’s criminality stems from her belief that she has no other way out of the perpetrator’s entrapment, with over half of the husband killings occurring in response to an immediate threat or attack by the husband.

The gender differences are even more marked when comparing the seriousness of assaults. It is a biological fact that men are usually bigger and stronger than women. This means that violence by a male partner tends to be more injurious than violence by a female. Men do not always need to exert this physical power: the sheer fact that they possess it, or have used it occasionally, may condition a relationship. Male perpetrators are also more likely to use dangerous weapons such as knives and guns. Furthermore, men tend to repeat their violent acts more frequently than women repeat theirs.

Most female victims report that they live in fear of their male partner. Male victims are less likely to feel intimidated and more likely to feel angry; they tend to say “I live with this crazy woman”. Some studies suggest that women’s violence is more likely to be an act of self-defense in a situation where the male partner is violent. Where women use violence it typically resembles the violence of a cornered animal; whereas the violent act of a male is like the violence of an animal stalking its prey. All such statements are generalizations, and there are exceptions — for instance, a wife who boldly uses physical violence against her husband because she knows that he is too gentlemanly ever to hit a woman.

When it comes to disclosing their victimization, males and females both feel shame. However, far more women than men seek help through the criminal justice system. Domestic violence crisis support agencies are usually only funded to assist women clients, and whether this makes male victims more invisible is hard to assess. However, most generalist counselors, psychologists and clergy encounter more female victims than male. True, men often dislike counseling and are therefore less likely to seek professional support, thus causing the male victim numbers appear smaller. Nevertheless, few professionals would suggest that males and females are equally victimized in the frequency or severity of their abuse experiences.

The abuse experience generally brings fewer long-term negative consequences for male victims. It appears to be easier for male victims to leave abusive situations. Compared to women victims, they are less likely to be financially dependent on their partners, or to have their freedom limited by childcare responsibilities. And men rarely experience post-separation violence.

Abuse takes many forms

Many myths about domestic abuse are gradually being dispelled. One is that physical violence is always the major element. Another myth (which, thankfully, is less believed these days) is that violence is probably the victim’s fault — that she must have provoked her partner by being verbally or emotionally abusive or insubordinate. Other myths downplay the responsibility of the perpetrator by suggesting that violence is caused by alcohol, unemployment or mental illness. Alternatively, it can be seen as two equal adults having communication difficulties and displaying lack of self-control. Initially many victims cling to these myths.

If such stereotypes and myths are inadequate or untrue, what does characterize domestic abuse? All of us, at times, have treated others in ungodly ways. Likewise, we have all experienced such treatment from others. Ungodly conduct takes many forms, from careless selfishness, inconsiderateness, or neglect of others, to disrespect, callousness, cruelty and criminal behavior. In this book the word abuse is used to refer to the more serious end of this spectrum. It is wrong to present the idea that we can cry “abuse” at any and every slight, but it is also wrong suggest that we have not been abused unless we have been beaten up, received bruising or suffered broken bones. Fair-minded thinking will allow that many kinds of non-physical behavior, especially when persistent and repeated, can so undermine a person’s well-being that the result is abuse.

Abuse can be emotional, social, financial, sexual, physical and spiritual. It may involve using children or legal processes as artillery of abuse. Non-physical forms of abuse can be just as (or more) damaging than physical violence. They are also harder to recognize.

Examples of these types of abuse, as perpetrated by domestic abusers, are given below. Supporters of victims may find the examples enlarge their understanding of what may go on with domestic abuse and how all pervading it can be to a person’s life. Some readers may find it a little tedious to read so many examples of it. However, a person who is unsure whether he or she is suffering from abuse will find the examples very helpful.

Most abusers manifest behavior from many of the categories below, some major on certain categories more than others. Some of the behaviors might not be abuse if they are isolated incidents, just committed carelessly, as part of the occasional ups and downs of personal interaction. However, when these behaviors demonstrate a pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain ungodly control over another, they become serious.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the most frequent form of relational sin. It permeates all other areas of a relationship and is at the core of the other forms of abuse listed here. It may involve put downs, criticism, cursing, yelling, ridiculing, or humiliation. The abuser may undermine the victim’s sense of identity, opinions, feelings, privacy, preferred wardrobe, hairdo, or special possessions. The abuser may demonstrate an attitude of “we are married, therefore I own you”. The victim is often treated like a servant, slave, or sex object—someone with no rights and no input into decisions. Abusers may play mind games or make hurtful jokes. The abuser may lie, blame the victim for everything, enforce trivial and obsessive demands, block and divert conversations, or give the silent treatment. He may occasionally treat the victim like royalty, as a means of manipulation, or from a temporary sense of remorse for previous conduct.

Denial is a key characteristic of emotional abuse; abusers deny that the problem is located in their behavior. This can take the form of emotional blackmail: “If you complain about my actions I will outstrip your complaints and make your life miserable.”

Emotional abuse can be very subtle as it works on the victim’s thinking — how she will try to make sense of what she is feeling inside, and how she will bring into balance her fear, anguish and turmoil.

Using Coercion and Threats

This category comes under emotional abuse, but because coercion and threats are so powerful in maintaining control of the relationship, these strategies need special consideration. An abuser may threaten to hurt you, the children, pets, your extended family or your property if you do not do what he wants. Other tools used by some abusers are stand-over tactics, using personal size to intimidate, driving dangerously, making threats of suicide and displaying weapons.

Sometimes an abuser may threaten to report the victim to authorities or threaten to publicly expose personal information to embarrass the victim or damage her reputation. Some abusers issue vague threats such as, “Now you’re in trouble”. In some cases the perpetrator may hurt or kill pets, implying “It will be you next time”. The victim may be made to betray or violate a deeply held value or belief, or act contrary to a long-held ambition. When a victim is compelled to commit or participate in illegal or sinful actions, such as committing a crime or having an abortion, she is left with an overwhelming burden of guilt and fear.

Social Abuse

When a victim is isolated from friends and family, this is social abuse. The abuser may limit access to work, study or social activities. When the victim engages in these activities the abuser may create such discomfort for the victim that the activities are voluntarily given up. The perpetrator may make demands on personal time by constantly checking up on her whereabouts, or prescribing rigid time limits for out of household tasks. Some abusers prevent their spouse from driving; some insist on accompanying her wherever she goes. The victim’s phone calls may be taped or monitored, and mail may be opened. Sometimes the abuser forces the family to move house often, or ensures that the family lives in out of the way locations, so the victim and children can never make friends or develop a support network. An abuser may tell his victim lies about what women’s shelters are like, to deter her from going to one.

Financial Abuse

Some perpetrators determine how the family finances are spent or managed without their spouse’s consent or awareness. They may put the household on a budget that is inappropriately tight, given the amount of money coming in to the family. They may spend money frivolously on themselves, or make financial commitments which impair the growth, safety, security or goals of other members of the family. An abuser may stubbornly insist that his way of handling the budget is fine, when it is actually placing the family in financial peril. Sometimes a husband will not hand over housekeeping money unless his wife gives him sex. An abuser may demand a record of every cent spent or may make the spouse earn money when she is sick, has demanding family responsibilities, or has just had a baby. Abusers may lie about money and may coerce you to lie about money to other people. Sometimes an abuser puts all loans and household bills in the victim’s name. This means that if the marriage breaks down he can walk away without any financial and legal responsibilities. Abusers can also withhold child support after separation.

Using and Harming the Children

Using or manipulating children is actually child abuse. An abuser may teach the children to dislike the other parent or disobey her legitimate authority. An abuser may make the children watch while he hits or sexually assaults their mother. An abuser may twist the truth or tell lies to the children to make them believe they are not loved by their mother. She may be made to feel guilty of bad parenting or the perpetrator may make, or carry out, threats to take the children away.

Abusers can use pregnancy to enforce their will. A woman may abuse a man by telling him she is pregnant with his child when it is not his child. Conversely, a man may accuse his wife of being pregnant to another man and punish her even though there is no evidence for his accusation.

After separation, some abusers use children like spies, making them report on the events of a partner’s life. Some use visitation rights as a way to continue harassing the victim. Sometimes they use the children as conduits of abuse by filling the child with hateful thoughts towards their mother while on visitation. When the child returns he or she pours out the venom that came from the abuser’s mouth. Some abusers lie about the other parent to the authorities, which causes that parent’s contact with the children to be ceased, or subjected to repeated litigation. Some disregard visitation arrangements and conditions for no valid reason. An abuser may display good parenting while his visitation is supervised by professionals, then revert to abusive parenting when the visitation is unsupervised.

Sexual Abuse

To ignore when a partner says “No”, to attempt to force a partner to do something that they feel morally obliged to avoid, or uncomfortable doing, is sexual abuse. This includes cases where the partner is too afraid to say no or unable to give consent. Rape is a crime within marriage.

Some abusers expect sexual willingness immediately after an incident of abuse or violence. Some indulge in suggestive behavior that they know the other person dislikes. Some men are addicted to pornography and masturbation but, as a result of it, either deprive their wives of sex or want to play out pornographic scenarios on their wife. Some women treat sex as a bartering tool to get their way in something else: “If you do this, I will reward you tonight”.

An abuser who reads the Bible may insist that a wife is only allowed to refuse sex unless the husband and wife are both praying and fasting. He may claim that since Hebrews 13:4 says the marriage bed is undefiled, he is entitled to demand anal intercourse or other debasing or unnatural practices.

The Bible teaches that the sexual relationship between a married couple should be one of mutual giving: there should be reciprocal generosity, each partner rendering the affection due (owed) to the other partner. There should also be reciprocal authority, each partner having authority over their spouse’s body (1 Cor. 7:3–5). Balancing these principles, we see that it is up to each partner to give pleasure, not to take it.

Sometime a victim believes that because her husband has authority over her body, she must make herself sexually available whenever her husband demands it. This is a form of prostitution and breeds disrespect in both spouses. It is also biblically unsound, because just as a husband has authority over his wife’s body, the wife has authority over her husband’s body. This means she can sometimes ask or tell his body not to do certain things to hers. The exercise of this provision should not be undertaken from selfishness; it means being sensitive to your partner’s situation even as you are acutely aware of your own needs or lack thereof.

The fact that each spouse’s body belongs to the other does not mean one spouse has the right to force the other to do anything he or she wants. The husband does not force his own body, so he should not force his wife’s body. Sex should not be one person always pleasing the other and the other always pleasing themself. Each party should aim to please the other in an atmosphere of negotiation, flexibility, and sensitivity. The Bible says the marriage bed is undefiled in order to discourage promiscuity or adultery, not to give a blanket approval for any action so long as it occurs within the marriage bed.

If pleasurable union is prevented by a genuine medical problem that cannot be cured, then the couple must work through that with prayer and care. Apart from such cases, however, constant refusal of sex, avoidance of it, or going through the motions in a resentful way is not God’s plan, as that does not please one’s partner. However, if there is a constant undercurrent of emotional abuse, it is hard for the victim to respond freely and joyfully to sexual advances.

Physical Abuse

This may include pushing, shoving, hitting, throwing things aggressively, choking and murder. It also includes damaging property and the neglect of basic physical and medical needs. Some abusers use objects or weapons against their victims. An abuser may block the victim’s escape, abandon her in dangerous places, or lock her in or out of the house. An abuser’s conduct may endanger other people’s lives, such as sabotaging the car. It is common for physical abuse to begin or increase during pregnancy. The assault of a pregnant woman causes physical and emotional damage to mother and child and it can induce miscarriage or early labor.

Men who have a pattern of violent behavior against their wives do not lose their senses when they are violent. No matter how angry they seem, they are generally in control of themselves because this gives them simultaneous control of the woman.

Spiritual Abuse

An abuser may redefine, twist and invert the meaning of biblical passages to justify abusive treatment. The biblical model teaches that a husband should lead his wife and family in a god-glorifying direction, and a wife should respect her husband. This model does not teach that a husband may coerce, intimidate or oppressively dominate his wife, or that wives should submit endlessly to such behavior from husbands. But an abuser often maintains that scripture ordains a chain of command which gives him authoritarian power over his wife and children, regardless of how much he may sin. He may use courses in Christian living to justify treating his wife like a naughty pupil.

He may claim that women are not created in the image of God. He may say that since Eve was deceived, no woman should trust her own thinking — she should let her husband think for her. He may claim that, as his suitable helper, her only role is to meet his needs and make him look good before his fellow Christians. He may intimidate her into not disclosing the abuse by saying she must be silent in church. He may claim that anyone who tries to aid the victim to leave him will face God’s wrath, since what God has joined together, let not man separate. He may blame her for the fact that he has never gone into ministry.

He may rape her (during the courtship or the marriage), then say that since she was in the city and did not cry out for help, she ought to be stoned to death.  This is a cruel misrepresentation of Deuteronomy 22:23–27 which condemns a betrothed woman who willingly has sex with a man other than her fiancé, but says if a betrothed woman is forced into intercourse by such a man, she is innocent. (In contrast to the abuser’s twisting of this scripture, true Christianity will assert that just as a betrothed victim of rape is not condemned, so we must not condemn a wife who is raped by her husband.)

He may justify his abuse by saying that he is disciplining her out of love, just as God disciplines those he loves. He may claim she deserves punishment because if we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. He may say she should be comforted by his punishment because Psalm 23:4 says your rod and your staff they comfort me. He may label her as proud and arrogant if she resists him and unforgiving if she is reluctant to grant forgiveness. He may justify his violence because Jesus overturned the tables of the moneylenders. He may believe the power-lust he feeds on is the power of the Holy Spirit.

Some abusers stop their spouse from going to church, reading the Bible, or teaching the children about the Bible. Some command the victim to read nothing but the Bible and to attend every church service. Some say things like, “God told me you’re not to drive the car any more”.

When a victim tells the abuser (or bystanders) that her husband has behaved badly, she may be accused of “being judgmental”. Christians are familiar with the scripture judge not, that ye be not judged. Many people think it prohibits mentioning anything negative about another person’s behavior, that “being judgmental” is a heinous sin, almost the height of unchristian behavior (coming not far below adultery in the “wickedness” stakes). To unfairly accuse someone of “being judgmental” is an extremely common type of spiritual abuse, often used by manipulative abusers who want to deflect criticism from themselves, and also used by misguided Christian bystanders who do not understand the scriptures properly. We will address this subject more in chapter two where we discuss the biblical teaching on rebuking, making complaint, and verbal self-defense.

The dynamic cycle of abuse

Most abusers do not practice their abusive behaviors all the time. There may be periods in which their behavior is fairly normal and they show love and affection for their spouse and family. Most victims will testify that their abuse was continual (recurring) but not continuous (uninterrupted).

Many, but not all, victims have been able to identify a pattern, a cycle in these changes. Everything goes well for a time, then gradually the selfishness and put-downs increase until there is a big episode of abuse, after which the abuser may be very sorry and “repentant”, treating the victim with exaggerated kindness. But nothing is resolved in this aftermath. The abuser is simply trying to gain forgiveness without having to take responsibility for his bad behavior. This is the buy back period — the abuser tries to regain the victim’s affection and loyalty, while never really addressing his own terrible behavior. Then gradually the tension builds … until the same sort of thing happens again. A cycle can occur every few minutes, days, weeks or months.

The victim’s outlook and emotions go up and down with this cycle. When she is being treated well, she is happy and hopeful: it seems like this is the man she married. During the tension-building phase she may blame herself that things are not right. “If I only change this or that he will settle down again.” In the explosion she is traumatized and bewildered. She may blame herself even more, or realize it is his fault and withdraw her affections from him, hence the need for buy back.

How perpetrators and victims present to others

Caution needs to be exercised when identifying the victim, for when a victim separates from the relationship the abuser often portrays him/herself as the victim. This blame-shifting attracts sympathy and attention from bystanders who may misread and even believe the opposite of the true situation.

The perpetrator often presents to the public as a model, mild-mannered citizen — he seems like a good husband. Yet in reality the marriage is characterized by his selfishness, manipulation and irresponsibility. He lies, minimizes and twists the truth. If the victim declares the relationship over, the abuser often wants the relationship to continue and will say so insistently and persistently. He may appear to be deeply sincere and heartbroken. He will often make a show of conversion or recommitment to Christ and/or to counseling when his wife separates. But for all this outward display, he will downplay and minimize his responsibility for the situation and subtly make it look like his wife is at fault.

In such circumstances, it may seem to outsiders that the wife wears the trousers. What outsiders do not realize is that the wife’s prominence in decision-making is a result of her husband mismanaging his headship. She has to make unilateral decisions in the face of his negligent attitudes in order to keep the family functioning.

Although the victim will often appear calm, there may be a log jam of trauma below her calm exterior, so she may not present the problem clearly to outsiders. This is not surprising, given that victims often hide the problem even from themselves. They have spent all their energy walking on eggshells and trying to “fix” the relationship. The abuse problem can be masked by labels of mental illness, the perpetrator’s addictions, work or financial difficulties.

Most victims tolerate and become worn down by serious abuse before recognizing that abuse is the problem. Many excuse their spouse’s bad conduct and overlook its damaging effects for a very long time. Typically, they choose to suffer in silence. This denial (non-recognition of the existence of abuse) is a way of coping. Typically, abusers project blame onto the other spouse: “I only did that because of the way you are behaving.” This makes the victim go into obsessive self-examination and self-recrimination: “It must be my fault; if I change this or that, it won’t happen again.” Such a victim has constant anxiety as to whether any of her own behaviors may have been abusive or ungodly, and is fundamentally unsure whether what she is suffering can be called domestic abuse. 

While still in the marriage, most victims of abuse do not identify with the label “victim of domestic violence” or “battered wife”. (That can’t be me! My marriage isn’t that bad!) They are more likely to recognize the word “abuse” than the word “violence” as describing their marriage. Even so, recognizing abuse in a marriage is usually a hard, long process. The Reverend Al Miles has served as a hospital chaplain for 18 years and in that time hundreds of women have disclosed violence inflicted by intimate partners. Almost none of these victims identified themselves as battered women.

When a victim is starting to come out of denial and wants to discuss or disclose her predicament to others, the reactions of friends and associates vary. Disclosing abuse can be risky and dangerous. Some people minimize the seriousness of the situation and imagine they can patch it up with a few words of advice or prayer. Others take the abuser’s side and blame the victim. Fellow Christians may question her faith, her Christian walk, or the standard of her forgiveness. Since many perpetrators claim they’ve been treated unfairly, some genuine victims are frightened of making the same claim because they don’t want to be characterized as false accusers. Bystanders who do believe the victim often think she must be stupid to have put up with the abuse and ask judgmentally, “Why didn’t you leave?” Other bystanders feel so uncomfortable they don’t know what to say, and this makes the victim feel ignored, shunned or judged.

It is not surprising that victims are reluctant to report domestic abuse. If they have previously disclosed and received insensitive or dismissive feedback, this may deter them from trying again. In Australia, only 20% of incidents are reported to police or other services. (This figure would be much lower in many Third World countries.)

To admit to being a victim is a humiliating experience. A victim often feels she is at the bottom of society—an undesirable outcast, a welfare statistic, a failed wife and perhaps even a failed mother. The shame can persist for months or even years afterwards. A victim may be terrified of revisiting her abuse memories because they brings up such raw pain and anger that she judges herself to be unforgiving and therefore un-Christian. In addition, the prospect of discussing competing scriptural interpretations of separation and divorce with her church may seem overwhelming. She fears that if she attempts such things, it will only increase her shame, pain and humiliation.

When it comes to the practicalities of ending the marriage, the victim may dread facing an unknown future, having to support herself financially and having to cope with the children’s distress at the marriage breakup. Above all, her fear of the abuser’s retribution can be very real, based on her past experience of his behavior.