Helping an Abuse Victim without being Duped by the Abuser
If a friend or member of your congregation tells you of the abusive relationship she is enduring, one of the most validating things you can do is to believe her. The validation of being believed empowers the victim and may help her to understand even more clearly the abusive relationship she is in — especially if the abuser tries to convince her he has changed.
However, as a supporter it is important to understand that you are at risk of being recruited by the abuser — to become his ally. If the abuser knows you, and especially if he has an inkling that you are supporting his victim, the abuser will see your support of his target as a great danger to him. Why? Because the abuser knows that it is easier for him to maintain power and control over his target if the target is isolated and bereft of people she can trust and confide in. He sees your friendship with his target as a potential lifeline for her (which it is), and he doesn’t want her to have any lifelines: he wants to keep her stuck, bound and numbed on his spider web.
The abuser will want to stop you from supporting his wife and he will use various tactics to try to achieve this. One of the skills of being a support person for victims of domestic abuse is to be able to recognise and resist the tactics that the abuser uses to try to recruit you as his ally. Even if he cannot win you over to be his full ally, he will be content to get you to adopt a ‘neutral’ stance. It’s important for you to understand that in domestic abuse, neutrality is NOT neutral.
In reality, to remain [or to become] neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal. If you are aware of chronic or severe maltreatment and do not speak out against it, your silence communicates implicitly that you see nothing unacceptable taking place. Abusers interpret silence as approval, or at least as forgiveness. To abused women, meanwhile, the silence means that no-one will help [i.e. she will stay isolated] — just what her partner wants her to believe. Anyone who chooses to quietly look the other way therefore unwittingly becomes the abuser’s ally.
Breaking the silence does not necessarily mean criticizing or confronting the abuser regarding his behavior. It certainly doesn’t mean going to him with anything you have learned from her, …
—Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He DO That? — Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. [link on google books]
Chapter 11 of Lundy’s book is titled “The abusive man and his allies”. One of the common allies he discusses is the religious leader. We recommend all supporters of domestic abuse victims read this chapter. (Click here to see the first two pages of chapter 11 of Why Does He DO That?)
Another of the abusers’s tactics is that he will try to convince you that he is changing/has changed. Here is what we know from much long experience and from the accounts of many survivors, as well as from professionals like Lundy Bancroft and George Simon and others who work in the field of domestic abuse:
- For an abuser to truly change takes a LOT of work on his part and it is a very long process that needs to continue for the rest of his life.
- An abuser cannot change unless he deals deeply with his entitled and superior attitudes. No superficial changes that he may make offer any real hope for the future.
- It makes no difference how NICE he is being, since almost all abusers have nice periods. What matters is how RESPECTFUL and NONCOERCIVE he chooses to become.
- Shallow and phony repentance is the abuser’s stock in trade. It is part of his manipulative arsenal.
- Lundy Bancroft has had a lot of experience of working with abusers who look like they are starting to change — and then backslide. When asked why, the abuser typically reveals that in some way his privileges were slipping. (link)
Thank you for validating your friend! Your support is going to be a lifeline for your friend. So may I suggest that to be the most effective supporter possible, please educate yourself on how to recognize and resist the abuser’s effort to recruit you as his ally.
We have a number of resources to help on our resources page for Supporters of Victims of Domestic Abuse.
You may also find these posts helpful:
The language of abusers who portray themselves as victims — Pt 1: Vagueness & Contraditions [apols from Barb: I have not written any more parts to that series 😦 ]