A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

The language of abusers who portray themselves as victims — Pt 1: Vagueness & Contraditions

When I’m listening to a person who is complaining about their spouse or their marriage, I want to discern whether they are a victim or a perpetrator. Does this mean I am suspicious of all disclosures of abuse? Yes; and no. In most cases, the person’s words (and body language, if I’m able to see it) tell me very quickly, almost immediately, that I’m hearing from a genuine victim. But there are some cases where that recognition and confidence does not come so easily.  In such cases, I believe it’s right to honor to my feelings of uncertainty and be consciously suspicious. After all, we talk a lot on this blog about how perpetrators pose as victims in order to recruit allies and supporters.  Jeff S recently said (in another thread) that the central question he would ask himself in this situation is is “does this person sound like he or she feels entitled?”

It’s an excellent question.  I think we can use that question as a sea anchor when we are in these kinds of conversations. (A sea anchor is a device used to stabilize a boat in heavy weather. Rather than tethering the boat to the seabed, the sea anchor increases the drag through the water and thus acts as a brake.)

“Does this person seem to feel unjustifiably entitled?” is the basic question I’m asking myself when I’m listening to a person who is complaining about their spouse or their marriage. The word “unjustifiably”  is important in that question, because survivors of abuse may so yearn for justice that they can come across as if they feel ‘entitled’ to justice. But victims of abuse are justified in yearning for justice – it’s not wrong for them to feel that way.

side note: When I was in early recovery from my first husband’s abuse and the ensuing abuse from the church, I saw a counselor who, to my face, seemed to totally support and validate me. Later, when applying for crimes compensation, I asked that counselor to write a report for the court about how I’d suffered psychologically as consequence of my husband’s actions. Her report was scathing: she described me as motivated by vindictiveness! I am convinced that she made that judgement because I talked quite a lot to her about how the church had mistreated me after I separated from my husband. I think she interpreted my feelings of outrage as vindictiveness.  It was devastating when I read her report.  I told the Victims’ Assistance Program staff that this counselor had maligned me unfairly, and they made a note not to refer clients to her again. But God, in His marvelous way, is now using that experience of mine to make me underline how important it is to ask “Does this person feel unjustifiably entitled to certain treatment?” – because there is all the difference in the world between justified entitlement and unjustified entitlement.

To ascertain whether the person’s  feelings are justified or whether they are due to hardness of heart and overweening entitlement, I need to listen to the person’s story and keep my antennae alert for various markers.

In this series of posts, I’m going to talk about the things I look for when I’m trying to discern whether a person’s account of their marriage problem is genuine. Remember when you did essays in high school or college? One of the typical questions was “Compare and contrast ________”.  I’m going to be comparing and contrasting the different styles of speech used by genuine victims versus perpetrators posing as victims. I’m writing from my own knowledge and experience but I have learned that the things I’ve gleaned off my own bat are confirmed by professionals who work in the field of family violence. I learned this when I went to a workshop called Assessing men who present as victims of family violence but who may actually be the primary aggressor which was presented by Nathan DeGuara, Victims Support Agency, Department of Justice Victoria, at the No To Violence conference in Melbourne last year.

This is part one of this series; more will follow. There are many markers I look for and I think it would do the subject a disservice if I tried to squash them all into one post. This first post deals with whether the person’s account contains vagueness or contradictions.

Vagueness and contradictions

If I discern vagueness or contradictions in the person’s story, I ask them to clarify. Usually in their clarification I can start to tell whether they are being deliberately (evasively) vague or whether their vagueness comes from something like PTSD, or can simply be explained by the fact that they haven’t told this story to many people who really want to listen, so they may be gushing and stumbling over themselves because the top has just come off the pressure cooker.

Note: I also keep in the back of my mind the possibility that their vagueness may come from an underlying condition not directly related to abuse perpetration or victimization –  things like acquired brain injury, early dementia, genetic disorders affecting cognition, disorders that can impair memory such as clinical depression, disorders that may impair the person’s grasp of reality such as schizophreia – and that list would not be exhaustive. I’m only speaking personally and I’m not a clinician, but in my experience, these “other” reasons for vagueness seem to be less common than PTSD or abuse perpetration.

Contradictions can be pressed to find out if they are simple errors and skips in accuracy while recounting the story, or whether they are actual deceit because the story was fabricated or air-brushed to begin with. You can point out the contradiction in what a person is saying quite politely, and ask them to comment. With a true victim, they will usually give you a much longer back-story, and then their whole account makes sense and it no longer seems like there is a contradiction.  But when you press a perpetrator who is posing as a victim, they tend not to give you a long and more coherent back story, rather, they sweep off into deflection, blocking, red herrings, etc. When I try to press a phoney victim to explain the contradictions that they have uttered and they avoid making a sound explanation, I often have the gut feeling that I’m being bullied. There is the sense that the other person are trying to control the direction of the conversation and is discounting my reasonable questions.

24 Comments

  1. Still Scared( but getting angry)

    Very telling..that you leave the conversation feeling bullied! So true! Of course It takes me a while to figure out why I feel upset or what didn’t feel right.

  2. This was so true for me. It seemed like my ex desperately needed to feel validated and the one wronged- he even convinced ME that he had been the victim in our relationship (for the length of it, and for a few months afterwards) … He also got all of our friends in the breakup for the same reason. That was the worst part, knowing that other people “knew” that he was the victim, and I could do nothing to correct that, even though they made my life very difficult after that.

    • Hi Forged imagination, welcome to the blog :)
      George Simon talks a lot about how abusers works hard to portray themselves as the ones who have been wronged. So if you haven’t yet read Simon’s books, I encourage you to check them out (see our Resources Page).

      May I suggest to you a slight rephrasing of your comment? Instead of saying “my ex desperately needed to feel validated and the one wronged,” try this way of putting it way: “My ex worked hard at manipulating the impressions of others so that they would see him as the one wronged.”

      In other words, he doesn’t so much need to feel validated as the victim – as if his fragile ego would collapse if he did not get that “need” met; rather, he chooses to create a lie by portraying himself as the victim in order to resist taking responsibility for his immoral behavior and deficient character.

      • Heather

        Bingo, Barbara, and thank you. That has been my experience as well and I have had to learn to rephrase things to be more in keeping with the truth. We are so often the last to see what was happening and why we respond as we do, often appearing as a crazy person.

        I’m looking forward to reading more.

      • MeganC

        Excellent rephrasing, Barb. Thank you. This helps me, as well. I truly believed that my ex’s ego would crumble if I didn’t constantly pour water down the rathole. And . . . .now . . . well, it seems he is doing just fine. What a release. An angering release (I wasted years and energy on his ego) — but a release nonetheless.

      • Barnabasintraining

        “My ex worked hard at manipulating the impressions of others so that they would see him as the one wronged.”…. rather, he chooses to create a lie by portraying himself as the victim in order to resist taking responsibility for his immoral behavior and deficient character.

        I too find this helpful. In the situation I knew, the victim was forever taking responsibility; being tenderhearted, responsible, and empathetic by nature, while the abuser was forever forgoing responsibility so he could look good and win.

      • Diane

        Barbara,
        That is so cool the way you rephrased that! When I first read the original, I thought, well, yeah, I know some people like that… but after reading how you worded it–that is the truth! The abuser plays the game to get sympathy and remain in control so he/she can continue with their power game over others. Thanks for that–so helpful.

  3. Just Me

    Barbara, I love this sentence. “I often have the gut feeling that I’m being bullied.” One of the things I’m learning from you in particular, is to listen to that feeling in my gut. I’ve spent years suppressing my instincts. As Christians, we’re told over and over again not to be ruled by our emotions but I feel the flip-side of this (at least for me) has been ignoring my instincts. Or, if I follow my instincts, I obsessivley second guess myself afterward wondering if I did the right thing.

    • Katy

      I have been very susceptible to the notion that we must suppress our feelings. I don’t naturally trust my feelings anyway – I’m more of a logical analyst. My parents and religious instruction led me to believe that this was the correct way to live. I ignored all of my instincts and feelings and operated on my logic ALONE.
      I can see now what an awful disaster this has been for my life. While it has served me well in my education/work, it has brought me destruction when dealing with other people & relationships.
      I am actively trying to train myself to listen to my feelings now – it’s very very hard. I am trying to notice when I feel anxious and unsettled and sick inside….and try to figure out why. I had a conversation with a man who came into my place of work one time – he was a total stranger and logically I had no reason to feel afraid – but all of the hair on my neck stood up and my arms broke out in gooseflesh – and I had this overwhelming feeling not to stand too close to him.
      I felt like I must be going nuts – but now I think…hmm maybe that guy was dangerous.

      • Katy, read Gavin de Becker’s book The Gift Of Fear. It is about this very thing that you felt from that guy.

      • This has been one of those ah-ha moments for me lately. I, too, have never trusted my emotions but simply because I’ve been told my entire life by all of my abusers (my family of origin and then my husband) that I’m overly sensitive and read into things too much. So, consequently, I don’t trust my “overly sensitive nature” and feel that I always need to run everything past someone else (because naturally everyone else has been gifted with better insight than I–said tongue in cheek). I recently have been through an awful experience with one son and a teacher of his. I have felt terrible, terrible anxiety all school year but just assumed it is my own PTSD, my own messed up emotions. Then, BAM! I found out that I had reason to be filled with anxiety! At nearly the same time this “discovery” was made I went through an awful experience with an old “friend.” I felt like I was “losing it” throughout January; my anxiety level and PTSD symptoms were off the charts again. Then, BAM! I found out that I had reason to be filled with anxiety! All of these relationships were toxic and potentially legally dangerous with very underhanded and vindictive things going on behind my back, and somehow something deep inside of me recognized it though my conscious mind was not aware of it. I’m learning that gut feeling of being bullied and the ensuing anxiety NEED to be heeded. Thanks so much, Barb, for another insightful post!

      • Jeff S

        I also do not trust my emotions, though I am trying to learn to.

        I think that emotions get a bad rap in evangelical circles because it is an overreaction against the “experience” driven religious thrust that has been prevalent throughout the last century. People come to all kinds of crazy thoughts and teachings through experience and experience becomes the highest truth. The problem is that our perceptions of experiences is never perfect and we can easily be betrayed. So the call is to return to the Word of God as the sole authority of truth and leave experience and emotions out of it.

        I think, though, that this is wrong- scripture says that God uses experience as a teacher. Obviously we must not pit our experience against the scriptures, but that does not mean experience (and emotions, which are related because they are internal to us) has no value.

        It’s this kind of thinking that allows us to redefine “love” in a way that is not loving, because we don’t let emotions come into it. If you FEEL something is unloving, well those are just feelings.

        This is they way my mind works, and it’s a lot of work to untrain it. I want to think critically, but I also want to be the full person God created me to be- including the person “below the neck”. It will be a long time before I trust someone who tells me that something that feels wrong is right.

    • Michelle Connell

      Hi Just me, you have nailed it by saying that we have been told to ignore our emotions, which in fact is another way of saying ignore your heart, because the heart is the seat of the emotions and is also where Jesus comes to live. So therefore if we are told to ignore our emotions, our hearts then could it be said that we are being told to ignore Jesus? I have always disagreed with not feeling as a Christian because Jesus in the Bible I have read was a very compassionate, feeling man. He cried, He laughed, He got angry, He was happy. Without feelings how are we supposed to protect ourselves from things that can harm us?
      I have just read a really good book on ‘the Heart Revolution’ by Phil Mason, which explains some of the History behind the intellectualization of the Gospel, opposed to teaching the Heart of the Gospel.

  4. Reblogged this on Speakingtruthinlove's Blog.

  5. Annie

    Just Me, I don’t know how that injunction not to be ruled by emotion gained such huge popularity in Christendom, but like you, I have come to realize that it has been misleading. Listening to your gut is hardly equivalent to being “ruled by emotion”. Rather, it is living the way God has designed us as human beings to live, with awareness of our internal reactions.

    Of course, as Christians we don’t want to be ruled by how we feel, but I think Christian “experts” who make a big deal of that are missing the point. It’s important to acknowledge what we feel, because if we don’t, it gets repressed and since the body doesn’t lie, it will come back to haunt us in some way or other. Acknowledging isn’t the same as being wildly ruled by it, as if we had no control of our choices.

    I think it’s great you are training yourself to follow your instincts. I found that hard to do when I was just coming out of the fog, more so because the abuser was still around and kept implying that my gut was unreliable and intended to keep me second-guessing. I think the second-guessing is also a kind of post-traumatic reaction which fades in time as we practise healthy re-training of our thought processes.

    It’s helped me tremendously that my counselors/advocates confess that they often make mistakes, and that it’s no big sin to do so. We’re allowed to make mistakes, and that takes away the obssessive “what if I’ve done the wrong thing?” thoughts. Even if we make mistakes, we know that we did ONE thing right – recognizing abuse/evil and disassociating ourselves from it. And for that, we should be hugely congratulated, not made to doubt our capacity to make right judgements.

  6. Anon

    Barbara, care to send a copy of this series to judges, evaluators, psych/forensic experts, counselors, pastors, school principals, etc? Oh, and throw in every bystander on the face of this earth.

    It makes me shudder to think that the reason why the average person wouldn’t identify contradictions/vagueness is that we probably come across these so frequently we get used to them. Now looking back, I certainly have encountered my fair share of such vague stories of victimizations in Bible study groups. Ditto for “unjustified entitlement” – in today’s society, there seems to be more and more unjustified entitlement, and the average person almost has to pause to reflect as to what constitutes justified entitlement. I have heard older women chide their daughters for not accepting their husband’s mistreatment because “men need to be looked after”, “all men sleep around, just be grateful he brings home the bacon”, “do the right thing and he won’t complain”. These women believed that the men’s entitlement was justified, and joined in the men’s indignance at not having their “needs” met.

  7. Rebecca

    Absolutely spot on Barb. I fully agree with you and am so glad you’re addressing this issue, as it’s so prevalent, especially in the church today where the mindset often geared toward believing the passionate statements of the abuser’s manipulative lying and blame shifting to gain pity and create doubt. Sadly, most church leadership wants to believe the manipulative claims to ‘healing’ and ‘poor me, I tried and I was the one abused’ because it’s easier, and quite frankly – the good old boys club covers for each other to preserve the name of the institution. I know there are those men here who have been victims themselves, so I’m not lumping you into that category.

    I love this from ‘Just Me’

    “I often have the gut feeling that I’m being bullied.” One of the things I’m learning from you in particular is to listen to that feeling in my gut. I’ve spent years suppressing my instincts. As Christians, we’re told over and over again not to be ruled by our emotions but I feel the flip-side of this (at least for me) has been ignoring my instincts.

    Yes, this has been true for me as well. It’s form of oppression while silencing the victim, false Biblical teaching: all, I believe to hide what else is going on in the church and in order to preserve institutional face. Thank you Barb.

  8. Rebecca

    Question, is there a way to post this discussion, or any discussion on Facebook as a link?

    • I will put a link to this post on our Cry For Justice FB page right now.

      But anyone can post a link to anywhere they write at FB. All you have to do is click on the title of the post, which makes the URL in your browser into the URL that for the post. Copy that URL. Then go to FB and paste the URL that you just copied onto wherever you want to write it on FB. In a few seconds you will see that FB has automatically converted the URL into an active link to the post, complete with thumbnail image, the title of the post, and the first few lines from the post body text. (Magic!)

      Advanced hint: If you want to share on FB a particular comment within the post thread, first click on the date under the commenter’s name. That will change the URL to a URL that leads to that exact comment. Then paste it into FB.

      • Maybe that advanced hint doesn’t work with this blog. I know I’ve done it on other blogs, but it might not work for this one. Some other reader may have a tip about this.

  9. “The word “unjustifiably” is important in that question, because survivors of abuse may so yearn for justice that they can come across as if they feel ‘entitled’ to justice. But victims of abuse are justified in yearning for justice – it’s not wrong for them to feel that way.”

    Oh, this is awesome, Barbara! I am so glad you clarified this. I was so relieved after I talked to Jeff S about this in one of the earlier posts. My husband believes he is the victim in the family, and he has many times accused me of trying to control him. I really did believe I was abusive to him…and in some ways I am. I am no longer intimate with him, we are not friends anymore, I am utterly cold and distant with him, and I am getting very firm about maintaining my boundaries, safeguarding my children and I, and not allowing him (or anyone else) to take advantage of me or cast doubt in me by undermining my confidence in my reality or decision-making capacities.
    After talking through the guilt I was carrying over this with Jeff, I realized that while I could (and should) be more respectful in the way I carry myself (but I am also learning in counseling to also to be more gentle and understanding with myself), my actions are not controlling or abusive; I am gaining my own identity and developing boundaries. The problem is that for so long my identity was enmeshed with his, and I had no boundaries at all, so now any attempt on my part to assert myself or establish clear boundaries for myself and my kids is met with fear and hostility. My husband sees this as a direct affront to him because he believes, quite geniunely, that he is ENTITLED to dictate everything to everyone else in my home.
    And the other thing is, I am also becoming very deliberate about establishing and maintaining an equal relationship between the two of us. I no longer tolerate him leaving me to do everything and then disregarding my legitimate complaints by telling me that the problem is all in my head, or that if I don’t want to do it all I should just not do it. That attitude got us kicked out of our home before, and I will not allow him to do that to us again. So yes, I do control him to some degree now. When he refuses to fix things I threaten to call someone from the church to do it. I know that will embarass him. WHen he lounges on the couch while I am doing all the work, picking up after him even, I nag him to get up and help me because I no longer take for granted that I should be the one to do all the housework in the home.
    I suppose now I do feel entitled, not only to justice, but to common courtesty and respect. And I feel that it is not a loving thing to accept that he is not capable of treating me with repsect and dignity. Not to him, and not to my children who are also now walking all over me and treating me like a maid.

    There is the vulnerability there for me to a little overboard. I think that the pendulum might swing back and forth to either extreme for a while until it gradually loses momentum, if that makes any sense. And I also rant and rave about how the church mishandled the abuse. I felt utterly abandoned by my faith community who I respected very highly. They really hurt me deeply and still can’t see how. Perhaps it wasn’t intentional on the part of all the clergy (and their wives) involved, but they had me thinking I couldn’t trust myself or my own reality, I was sinful for seeking help because I was not focusing on my own sin, and then that God expected me to throw the “problem child” out of my home to alleviate some of the burden. They blamed my son for his own abuse. Now my son resents the whole church and wants nothing to do with this God who wouldn’t protect him. How can I not be angry? This is my child’s eternity at stake!
    I was also thrown into a dark pit in terms of my relationship with God and my identity before Him. I didn’t even seek outside help (and no one ever counseled me to) until I had reached the point that I was sitting in the bathtub with a bottle of epilepsy pills, ready to end my life because I felt hopeless to do anything about the situation and my children (who I loved more than anything else in this world) were getting screwed up.

    Throughout this whole ordeal, I became very disoriented and still need to process everything, heal, and work through it – though I have made much progress. I can see how this might be construed as vindictiveness, but I know that it is far from it. I am not vindictive in the least bit to my husband. In fact, I still feel sorry for him and struggle with myself to justify my lack of responsiveness to him. Since he is abusive to my son and not me directly, and because he can so easily switch from a cruel monster of a father to my son, and then a loving, affectionate, and charming husband to me, as if he hasn’t done anything wrong at all, I often feel unjustified (and abusive) in my indifference to him. But then I think of the things I have read here, and talk logic to myself.

    Anyway – and this was actually what I wanted to say before I “went off” there – this is a very important topic, Barbara, and I am so so so glad you are talking about it.

    • Desley, it sounds like you are talking lots of sense to yourself. Keep it up!
      Also, a book you might find helpful in your situation is Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Man, Can He Change? A Woman’s Guide to Deciding Whether to Stay or Go. I have not read it thoroughly yet myself, but I’ve skimmed it and it looks like it would be helpful to anyone who is living with someone who is verbally abusive.

  10. Kimberly

    I also think teaching we should not be ruled by our emotions needs caution and CLARITY. Our emotions are the voice of our spirits. What we deem “negative” or illegitimate emotions can actually be our spirit showing us red flags, warning us that there is danger that needs to be addressed.

    Trusting my “gut” is good and Godly. Jesus said, “Out of your BELLIES (innermost being), will flow rivers of living waters.” I have learned not to ignore my knee-jerk reactions. My intuitive nature helps me stop pretending that evil and evil people will just disappear on their own. There often is some ACTION I need to take in protecting and guarding my heart.

    [It is amazing that the medical community has discovered that we have two brains. Our brain and this small brain-like mass in our stomachs are inter-connected. 95% of the serotonin we have is produced in the bowels. This gives a whole new meaning to understanding the Psalms, especially, that expresses this very thought of the depth of our connection to God, as being, in our "kidneys or bowels". It is actually quite inspiring to know the Lord is aware of those deepest parts of us and communicates to us through this. "Out of our bellies", has a whole new meaning! We can sense and pick up on things that can be overlooked by our minds. This little brain does not have conscious thoughts not is it used in any decision making but it can give one the "heads up" in the arena of their emotions!!]

    Trusting one’s emotions does NOT mean we ACCOMMODATE carnal feelings. We need to learn how to discern between the two. Being AWARE of emotions that are given to us purposefully by our Creator is using wisdom.

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