|Photo by Ryan Castillon
Privacy is generally a good thing, but in the case of abusive behavior, silence protects the abuser and harms his/her victim. Silence about abuse, means the abuser can keep on behaving as he or she wishes without any consequences. It means the abuse will continue.
The victim's silence, however, does not mean that the victim means for the abuse to continue. As a Christian wife I kept silent about abuse, hoping my Christian spouse would repent of his violence and would, as he moved closer to God, want to stop losing his temper.
My perspective has changed markedly as I've learned more about abuse and have progressed on a journey of healing. I now see that I assumed my husband was a Christian. I had asked him if he was before our second date. He had answered that he had gone to church all his life and that he liked talking with God. Not being raised in a Christian household, this sounded like mature faith to me. Only after marriage did I discover that if his faith was real, it wasn't transforming his life. He wasn't growing and changing as God led him. He wasn't in a place of bearing good fruit for the fourteen years of our marriage. Was he a backslidden Christian or not a Christian at all? Probably I will never know. But what I do know now is that if a Christian isn't bearing any of the fruit that gives evidence of the Holy Spirit working in his life, then it isn't reasonable to expect mature Christian behavior from him. My husband did not acknowledge that he was abusive, didn't repent of it, and didn't ask God to help him learn more respectful behavior.
I knew as a Christian that I must forgive my husband for his abusive behavior. And I forgave--because God asks us to forgive others when they sin against us and because God empowers us to extend forgiveness even in the most difficult situations. What I did not understand about abuse at the time was that my way of expressing that forgiveness was interpreted as a green light by abusers. When I behaved like a woman who had forgiven boundary violations, my spouse felt happy and empowered. He didn't ask for forgiveness but he was happy to see it--because to him it meant that he could do more of the same, knowing that I wasn't going to leave and I wasn't going to report his behavior to authorities. It took years, several Christian books on forgiveness and a conversation with ministers before I realized that forgiving another does not mean that I have to re-extend trust to that individual. It took time (about 12-13 years) for me to understand that I could forgive my husband anything with God's help--but, I shouldn't trust my husband to change his behavior just because I truly had forgiven him. My acts of forgiveness did not guarantee any safety from continued abuse.
I eventually learned that I needed to forgive my spouse, and I needed to hold him accountable for his behavior. I finally told a minister when my husband hurt our 5 year old daughter's arm during one of his rages. I was scared to death that social services would be called but I felt a huge instinct to protect my child. My husband hurting me was one thing, hurting our child was another. The minister didn't report the act to social services and didn't urge for the arm to be checked by a doctor. In hindsight, I realize that I didn't tell the pastor about the other times my husband had been abusive. He probably viewed the situation as a one-time only loss of temper, not as another piece in a pattern of abuse. I returned to silence after this incident.
It wasn't until three later, when I caught my husband choking our then 5 year old son that I admitted that I would need to tell others about my husband's behavior in our home. I went to a domestic violence shelter and reported the choking incident. Again nothing was reported to social services--because I was out of denial enough to go to the shelter but felt totally unsure whether the shelter would view our situation as an abusive one. I was exhausted, confused and frightened when I filled out forms at the shelter. I wrote sentences about why I was there but I left the direct question designed to confirm child abuse or spousal abuse blank. I thought the workers at the shelter would evaluate the information I gave them and would check the abuse boxes for me if that was indeed what my children and I had been experiencing. I was wrong. No one took responsibility for those check boxes on the form.
Fortunately, the shelter counselor did enroll me in an abuse awareness class held at the shelter. Over the next six weeks I attended each class session and had layer upon layer of denial stripped away by the education I received. There was no way to hold onto the hope that my husband wasn't really abusive. When my husband began escalating again in a pattern that had characteristically built to an abusive explosion, I took the children and left our home. Soon after I requested a restraining order and then filed for divorce.
Secrecy had not served me or my children well. If I had let others know sooner what was going on in our home, how frequently my husband expressed anger, what my husband threatened to do to us, what my husband had done to us so far, etc. either my husband would have responded to having the consequence of others knowing how he was behaving or I would have gotten myself and my children to safety sooner.
I have learned through experience and education that forgiving abusive behavior doesn't inspire abusers to get help. They aren't miserable over abusing others, they abuse because they find it rewarding. As long as someone allows them to abuse, they keep on abusing. It was difficult for me to swallow this. I hated it when the shelter class teacher talked about "allowing" abuse. As far as I knew I had never "allowed" abuse. Abuse was a terrifying reality that had happened in my childhood and in my young adult years. From my perspective as a trapped victim, I didn't want anyone to abuse me, it "just happened."
But in the abuser's mind--they abuse because they like feeling powerful and they choose victims who "allow" themselves to be harmed. Abusers count on victims who will not report their inappropriate and illegal behavior to police. Abusers also do their best to brainwash and diminish their victim into conditioned helplessness. So, even if a victim did report abuse to authorities, he or she wouldn't be capable of leaving the relationship. It was shocking to me when I finally got this. I had never wanted abuse, but due to my constant exposure to abuse, it took me awhile to figure out that I didn't have to keep living in abuse.
When an adult in a home is abusing the other family members the only effective way to end the situation is for the other non-abusive adult to give a clear message of, "No more abuse will be tolerated." The words aren't what are needed--because abusers don't care about spoken boundaries. The only course that has any chance of getting through to an abuser is action. The abuser needs to know you will not remain in relationship with him. The abuse only stops when the victims leave. If there is future reconciliation and a continuation of the marriage without any further abuse, it only happens after the abuser realizes that he can only regain his family by learning how to stop abusing others. I have never seen any stats on successful rehabilitation of abusers. To gain a realistic perspective I've called a few of the programs whose purpose is to help abusers stop abusing Each place gave the same answer, "Most abusers return to abusing, but if we succeed with only one person then it is worth our time and effort." I hate to be a bearer of bad news, but it is truth. It is also critically important for abused spouses to understand that the act of leaving creates a dangerous crisis.
The abusive men who kill their wives, most frequently do so when their wives try to leave them. So, shelters advice leaving without making announcement to your husband. If you are taking children with you, leave a note that says you need time to think and the kids and you are on a trip and will call him. Then call about once a week from a phone he cannot track to your location (the phone calls keep you from being accused of kidnapping your own children). If your spouse has escalated to beatings and/or death threats in the past, then use the help available through shelters to relocate to a new location with a new identity.
Freedom from abuse cannot rely on an abuser initiating change. What is happening in the home cannot be a private if you want the abuse to end. It may seem embarrassing to tell others the truth about your spouse's behavior--but it could save your life (physically or emotionally).
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