A Cry For Justice

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

Victims’ vulnerabilities that abusers exploit

We talk a lot on this blog about the many strengths of victims of abuse, and how victims creatively resist abuse. One of the ways we can increase our strengths and be even better at resisting abuse is to be aware of our vulnerabilities. As we work to overcome our vulnerabilities, we make it more difficult for abusers to exploit us.  George Simon Jr. in his book In Sheep’s Clothing *affiliate link (pages 140-41)  lists the vulnerabilities that abusers commonly exploit in their victims: naivete, over-conscientiousness, low self-confidence, over-intellectualization and emotional dependency.  

It strikes me that these are the very vulnerabilities that conservative Christianity can inadvertently (?) impart to many of its followers and perhaps most particularly to females.

Naivete. Cotton-wooled in conservative church-going culture, many Christians are naive. They aren’t street wise, they’re unable to recognize and deal with evil people because they’ve been taught to think the best of everybody and to treat everyone as if they are honorable and can be reasoned with. And they’re unlikely  to look for wolves in sheep’s clothing in their own little stream of Christianity because the wolves are ‘out there’ in other denominations and other churches, they’re not in our church!

Over-conscientiousness.  Christians are taught to be conscientious – to watch their thoughts, feelings and actions so as to avoid sin; to confess and repent when they have sinned; and to put others before themselves. All well and good, but this teaching is often insufficiently balanced by instruction about how to guard against predators and evil-doers, and how not to throw one’s pearls before swine. We are trained to believe that if we continually run on the mouse wheel of do-gooder-ism, everything will come out alright in the end.

Low self-confidence. The legalistic and Pharisaic forms of church culture  can make low self-esteem worse by teaching distorted wooden doctrines to regenerate believers: “You are nothing but a depraved sinner; you have no rights; all you deserve is hell,”  or, “All sins are equally sinful; therefore your sins are just as bad as the sins of a really malicious, depraved person.”

Over-intellectualization. Simon explains that victims may try too hard to understand the reasons for the abuser’s behaviour in the delusion that uncovering and understanding the manipulator’s behaviour will be sufficient to make things different. The pop-psychology version of this is to try to explain the abuse as the result of things like a rotten childhood, unemployment,  mental illness or other health problems. But Christians can add to a bunch of super-spiritual intellectualisations  like ‘an attack of the devil’ or ‘lack of bible reading and prayer’ or ‘poor church attendance’ or ‘not being accountable to other men in the church’ (as if the other men would be likely to know how to see through an abuser’s deceits).

Emotional dependency. The false and sub-biblical doctrine in many church cultures breeds emotional dependency. When we are scared into obedience by Pharisaic doctrine, when non-conformity to church culture is equated with disobeying God, it can be a form of traumatic bonding. Two powers wall us in: the abuser and the church. We often find it hard to emotionally depend on God (a healthy form of emotional dependence) when our concept of God is conflated with our experience of Pharisees.

*  *  *

However this isn’t just a church-bashing post. The vulnerabilities that Simon lists are by no means exclusive to conservative Christian culture. I had a good middle class secular upbringing and got into the drug scene in my late teens, but believe it or not I was still very naive even while living the drug addict lifestyle.  I could lie and take advantage of others when I wanted to, but I nevertheless had a naivete about the way the world worked that took years to shed. My naivete led to many embarrassments; I think some people must have thought I was weird or crazy or both, because I had so little understanding.

I can also put my hand up for the other types of vulnerability. I showed over-conscientiousness in both my marriages and had low self-confidence from my teens right up to my mid-forties. In thinking of multiple excuses for my abuser’s behaviour, I certainly over-intellectualised.  And in my first marriage I was emotionally dependent because I worried that ending the marriage would mean my reversion to bulimia, the addiction that had dogged me ever since I was eleven.


* Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ  gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link



  1. joepote01

    That’s a good list, Barbara…and one I can relate to…

    Over-conscientiousness: You betcha! I was more than willing to search out any areas I may have contributed to any issues. In general, this can be a good thing…but in the extreme, it leads to being blind to major issues in a partner.

    Over-intellectualization: Yes, it was not hard to see sources for the manipulation, lies, and abuse in her childhood and in her sense of abandonment by her father. And, yes, these were cause for prayer for healing. Eventually, though, I had to face the fact that none of this was an excuse for intentionally, repeatedly inflicting deep wounds in me. Intellectualization helps us to understand the source, but doesn’t really change the situation.

    Emotional dependency: Yes, I had a deep need to feel needed…to feel special. And, yes, she definitely knew how to exploit that. I agree with you, that in Christian circles we often encourage this sort of emotional dependence in how we elevate the institution of marriage…and even in secular circles where romance and soul-mates are often strong themes whose pursuit is worthy of risking everything…

    Low self-confidence: In general, I don’t think of myself as having low self-confidence. However, the above-mentioned need to feel special and needed sort of exposes and area of low self-worth, doesn’t it? I’m still learning to realize how special I am in the eyes of my King…and that His perception of me is the only one that really matters.

    Thanks for the good post!

  2. Jeff S

    I think the is a REALLY good post. This puts down in writing a lot of what I’ve been wrestling with over the last year- there’s a lot of the way we “do church” that leads to a lot of bad stuff. The problem is that it’s not simple thing figuring out the adjustments that need to be made without erring in some other bad direction.

    • joepote01

      “The problem is that it’s not simple thing figuring out the adjustments that need to be made without erring in some other bad direction.”

      That’s the tricky part isn’t it?

      I see it as not so much a need for balance as a need for fully pursuing God’s heart in all things.

      And, yes, sometimes that leads to hard choices and deep wounds…but God is faithful…and He grows our wisdom and discernment along the way…

      • Jeff S

        “I see it as not so much a need for balance as a need for fully pursuing God’s heart in all things.”

        Yes, the Christian life is not a life of “balance”, and this is a crucial point we all can miss.

        Was Jesus God or was he Man? Yes
        Does God want us to be loving or truthful? Yes
        Are we to be people of mercy or righteousness? Yes

        No balance- we need to reject false dichotomies. We look at these problems the wrong way. My goal has been to look at them the right way, not to figure out how to adjust to the right degree.

      • joepote01

        Well stated, Jeff!

      • Laurie


  3. Lynette D

    I have been thinking along those same lines for a while now. i can’t tell you how many times I heard “It takes two to break up a marriage.” Well, it must take two to fix a marriage then right? Honestly, both those lines are bunch of hooey. All is does is make the one being abused over analyze everything they say and do to try and figure out where they might be sinning, even when they are not. Which leads to feeling bad about themselves and on and on it goes.

    • joepote01

      I completely agree, Lynette! The it-takes-two-lie is exactly that…a lie! And yes, it leads to all sorts of over-analysis and searching for non-existent blame.

      Yes, it does require two people working together to develop and sustain a healthy relationship.

      Since that is true, then it clearly only takes one person’s treachery to ruin the relationship!

      You might enjoy my blog post on this topic: http://josephjpote.com/2012/08/the-it-takes-two-lie-2/

      Blessings to you!

      • Yes, it does require two people working together to develop and sustain a healthy relationship.

        Since that is true, then it clearly only takes one person’s treachery to ruin the relationship!

        That’s what I was thinking, Joe.

        I don’t get how 2 are necessary to ruin a marriage. That implies it only really takes 1 to make it work. But if that was the case, why get married at all? On the contrary, it takes 2 to make a marriage work but only 1 to ruin it.

      • joepote01

        “I don’t get how 2 are necessary to ruin a marriage. That implies it only really takes 1 to make it work.”

        I love how you turned the phrasing around on this, BIT!

        Very true!

        …and for many years I carried the burden of believing it was all my responsibility to make it work…

      • Joe,

        Remember that line from Animal Farm by the horse (I think it was the horse) because the greedy pigs weren’t getting all they felt they were entitled to off of others’ labor?

        “I must work harder.”

      • joepote01

        Hah! BIT, I’ve not thought of Animal Farm in years.

        But, yes, you’re right. Covenant abuse is covenant abuse, whether in a marriage or a corrupt government.

        And the “I must work harder” mentality just allows the cycle of abuse to continue….

    • Jeff S

      I guess God was responsible for breaking up his marriage with Israel, then?

      • Laurie

        God broke it up, but Israel was the one that sullied it with idolatry.

  4. Bethany

    Naivety is the big one for me. I was raised by a wonderful father and was surrounded by a lot of Godly men in my life. I think part of my thought all “Christian” men (which my husband has always clamed to be) were good and could be trusted. I was gravely ignorant of the evil that some men possess.

    • joepote01

      That’s a tough one, isn’t it, Bethany?

      As a parent, I very much want to protect my chidlren from exposure to evil. I want to protect their innocence and demonstrate loving godly behavior.

      Yet, that healthy sheltered home life does carry a risk of naivety.

      My children have been exposed to much more than I would have liked for them to be exposed to. I can only trust that God, in His loving wisdom, knows how to use it all for His glory and for their good.

      • “My children have been exposed to much more than I would have liked for them to be exposed to. I can only trust that God, in His loving wisdom, knows how to use it all for His glory and for their good.”

        Joe — So have mine.😦 However, I have found that when we communicate like crazy about those things and they begin to understand them, they become more secure. I would so much rather say, “See that, children? Look at that on TV. That’s BAD. Look how it breaks down relationship!” instead of just keeping them all protected and only watching Veggie Tales or something. I want them to recognize evil and know to be wise. I was too sheltered. I am learning how to do this, btw. It goes completely against my nature!

      • joepote01

        You are a wise and loving mama, Megan! Your children are blessed!

    • I was the same way, Bethany! My Daddy was an incredibly godly man. I thought all men were like him! He died before I married or I am SURE he would have stopped it.

  5. Oh my goodness, Barb . . . I see myself in ALL of these!! This is a great post. It will help me to better teach my children to be wiser than I. Thank you!

  6. This is a phenomenal post!!! Yes, Megan, I see myself, too, in all of it. Like Barb, I did not grow up in a sheltered, Christian environment, yet I, too, was grossly naive. (BTW, Barb, THANK YOU for saying that you thought people must have thought you crazy or weird; that has been on my mind a lot lately–how people must have perceived my misconceptions of the world around me. So good to know I’m not alone in that place.) I’ve also really been bothered by it the last few days because I’ve had several conversations with Christians who have told me they’re praying for my husband to be rid of his anger or really get saved or who have made naive suggestions for me as to how to “handle” him by trying to bridge the relationship. It is as though they absolutely have no recognition of the reality of evil. If anything, they see me as evil for saying he’s evil! It upsets me now, but I remember believing the same garbage at one time. It really makes me mad that they take it upon themselves to instruct my distraught children in that way, instead of validating my kids’ emotions and instructing them to beware of evil. It’s as though the church has forgotten our admonition to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

    • joepote01

      “It upsets me now, but I remember believing the same garbage at one time.”

      ANFL, I have to frequently remind myself of this, as I seek patience and grace in dealing with well-intentioned but totally-wrong and potentially-harmful ignorance.

      I too was once blind to these truths. That doesn’t mean I should be shy about speaking out, but it does mean I need to have grace for other people’s ignorance.

      And…I need to continue to defend healthy boundaries…because ignorant people can inflict deep wounds if permitted…

      • I’ve found, too, that by exhibiting that grace and patience while speaking out I get a pretty decent response most of the time. I think if I responded in anger to them, rather than just venting it here, I wouldn’t get the same willingness to listen and understand. For instance, the Sunday School teacher this past weekend was giving me her shtick about her former bad girl life and praying for my husband because “if he could only see how he’s hurting the kids.” I very gently stopped her and explained that these men (and women) do understand what they’re doing and that it is intentional to hurt me and punish the kids for revealing the abuse to the judge and counselors. She then changed her direction to the offending one of these little ones/millstone verse. That was when I said, “Yes, I know that. That is why my prayer is that the Lord does not tarry in hanging that millstone about his neck. I prayed for him and his anger and his salvation for nearly 20 years. He’s been discipled one on one many times; he’s been in church; he’s been through counseling. He is in willful disobedience against the Lord in harming his own children, and he’s fully aware of that. It is as though he’s been turned over to a reprobate mind.” Her countenance changed and she said that she’d pray that for the children’s sake, too. Though she started out lecturing me, in the end, grace helped her see where she was the one not “getting it.”

      • joepote01

        ANFL – what an awesome way to handle the situation! And what an amazing response by the Sunday School teacher!

        I admire your courage to speak out, and your presence of mind to speak clearly.

        I’ll try to learn from your example…

        Way to go!!! 🙂

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. I had no idea the post would strike such a strong chord. And congrats to ANFL for your educational conversation with the Sunday School Teacher. I am hardpressed to think of even one conversation I’ve had with a Christian that has managed to shift them from ignorantly hurtful comments to real understanding and recogintion that they hadn’t understood. Thanks for sharing it with us; it’s a rare pearl.

  8. Lynette D

    Part of the problem is, as in my church, the three pastors were basically raised christian by good christian parents, who in turned married good christian girls. So they have no idea what its like to be in an abusive marriage. (I do know abuse can happen in what was seemingly a good marriage though). But if they’ve never had to endure any type of abuse, they just don’t get it.

  9. Song

    Thank you for this post. It is really good. I think you nailed it here when you said, “…this teaching is often insufficiently balanced by instruction about how to guard against predators and evil-doers, and how not to throw one’s pearls before swine.” And in addition to that, the false teaching of how we are to unconditionally love everyone binds us to putting up with abusiveness from people. Has the subject of unconditional love been addressed on the blog already?

    • Song, I wrote a post a while ago called Love Believes All Things which somewhat addresses the subject of unconditional love. But if you do a search for categories like forgiveness and boundaries, you will find more posts that related to the idea of unconditional love showing that love doesn’t mean we have to tolerate abuse or reconcile with unreformed abusers.

      • Song

        Thank you, Barbara. I read so much stuff it’s hard to remember where I’ve seen it all. I will go back and reread it. It’s time for me to create a file for unconditional love to organize what I’ve read.

    • Song . . . I have not read the posts, yet, that Barbara mentions in response to your comment. But, I had that “unconditional love” tactic thrown at me time and time again by my abuser. I have no bitterness toward my husband and no unforgiveness. I have no romantic love for him at all but I have no hatred. I do love him . . . as I love any and all people simply because they are created in the image of God and He instructs me to do so. If I were really truly loving my ex husband all those years . . . . if loving someone entails discovering what the very best is for them . . . is my being abused by him the very best thing for HIM? When I was with him, I was the expert enabler. Without me, he is not abusing me. Do you see what I am saying? My leaving him was not only the best decision for my children and me . . it was the best, most loving decision for him, as well. Now, he might choose to go an manipulate the stuffing out of another woman or other children . . . but that won’t be on my hands.

      • “loving someone entails discovering what is the very best for them…”
        I like that.

      • Song

        Megan, Yes, I think I see what you are saying. Allowing someone to abuse you is not loving to anyone.

        The unconditional love tactic has/is being used by my abuser, and was used by the counselor we saw together last year. She responded in shock and said, “Wow!! Really, Song? As a Christian, you don’t believe in unconditional love!!! Then what kind of love do you believe in?” And when I said, “No, I don’t believe in the unconditional love you have presented.”, my abuser said to her, “See what I am dealing with?” and they exchanged a “knowing” look, shaking their heads at the same time. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, I was a bit shaken by her response, and then when she asked me what kind of unconditional love I did believe in, I couldn’t answer her. I was mortified at the time for not being able to form a coherent sentence (2Ti 4:2 “Preach the word! Be ready in season [and] out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching.” Another verse used as a tactic of my abuser to get me to feel insufficient.) because of the shock of what had just happened, but now I’m thankful I couldn’t. Verbally speaking about what I believe just gives my abuser more ammunition to use. Living out my life according to my beliefs has never meant so much to me as it has lately.

        Another thought has been rolling around my brain after reading this: “My leaving him was not only the best decision for my children and me . . it was the best, most loving decision for him, as well.” I’ll need to continue later, though.

        Thanks, Megan.

      • Song, I can see we probably need to write a post about unconditional love.
        There is a section in my book (Not Under Bondage) that relates somewhat to this topic. It discusses the difference between God’s covenant of salvation and human-to-human covenants. Here is what I wrote:

        God’s covenant is somewhat different from human covenants. God’s covenant with his people is unconditional and unilateral, being fulfilled entirely through the electing grace of God, who cannot sin. However, all human covenants are conditional and bilateral, being agreements between two parties who are sinners. Since marriage promises are mutual, it follows that the blessings and security of marriage are dependent upon each party fulfilling his or her promises. Penalties may need to be invoked if the promises are not honored.

      • Song . . . I am shocked at how your counselor behaved! Not just in word but in deed!😦 Of course you couldn’t come up with a response to that. I don’t think I would have, either! Her entire posture was condemning and I am sorry you went through that. You are wise not to share your thoughts with your abuser. I wish so much I had been as careful and cautious as you. Big hugs.

      • Jeff S

        “I have no bitterness toward my husband and no unforgiveness. I have no romantic love for him at all but I have no hatred. I do love him . . . as I love any and all people simply because they are created in the image of God and He instructs me to do so. ”

        I just wanted to say this is EXACTLY where I am with my ex. I want good things for her. I desire to see her happy and fulfilled. But I have no romantic feelings for her.

        Our divorce was not bitter or filled with hatred. I did not seek to get whatever I could. In fact, I truly sought to do for her whatever I could for her well being. Honestly in some ways I had her over a barrel because of her hospitalizations– but I never threatened her. Whatever was reasonable and good was what I did, even if it meant a sacrifice on my part. And my mother actually paid a years worth of rent for her. I did some things for her that I was not obligated to do, but I felt that I could do and maintain my boundaries (which I did have to set at times).

        To me this is unconditional love, and also the kind of love that turns the other cheek. And you know what- that love didn’t fail and it never will.

    • Another thing on this blog that relates to Unconditional Love is this comment by Jeff S. It appears here in another thread, but I’m copying it below for your convenience.

      “…you must take every step in redemptive love”

      When I hear “redemptive love” I think of the book “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers. It was my ex’s favorite book and is supposed to be a relatively modern retelling of Hosea. I haven’t read it (though I did try at one point), but from what I understand the idea is that Hosea takes this broken and abused girl and loves her into redemption, even as she causes him pain. I really think that this is what she expected me to do- she knew she was broken and wanted me to fix her. The flaw in her plan is that I am no redeemer, and I’d argue neither was Hosea.

      Hosea is not about how awesome he was at redeeming a broken, sinful women- it is about him living out God’s tumultuous relationship with Israel. The thrust of the message is that Israel abandoned God. There is an eye toward restoration and redemption, but it is Gods’ redemption (and possibly with a NEW bride), not Hosea’s faithfulness that restores. And Hosea suffered greatly for this prophecy, a clear calling of God to do so. Is every broken marriage intended to be a prophetic example of Israel’s abandonment of God?

      I can’t tell you how many times Hosea was brought to me as example of how I was supposed to love my wife.

      • I remember this comment and I meant to reply to it. I have read this Francine Rivers book. It seems that some people want a human being to be their savior . . . over and over and over. We simply cannot! Only Christ can do this! And did! When a person tries to make another human being (or FORCE, rather!) their savior, it is only a recipe for emotional disaster. The one needing to be rescued sucks the life out of the one they want to save them.😦

      • Lynette D

        part of the problem is people forget this part-
        Hosea 3

        3 The Lord said to me, “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.”

        2 So I bought her for fifteen shekels[a] of silver and about a homer and a lethek[b] of barley. 3 Then I told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”

        He takes her back, but he also tells her she must stop her sinful behavior!

      • Well said, Lynette. Amen.

      • And thinking about that book “Redeeming Love”, I’m reminded of another woman who said it was her favourite book. She had been seriously abused and had become a chronic alcoholic to escape her pain. It seemed to me like she always wanted the quick fix, the magic wand that would heal her without her having to do any of the work.

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