Dealing with victims of abuse (Abuse series part 3)

Here are links to this entire series:
Part 1: My story of abuse (Introduction)
Part 2: Seven things you need to know about abusers
Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse
Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle
Part 5: Getting help for an abuse victim
Part 6: Taking the next step
Part 7: My church’s initial response to abuse
Part 8: Your marriage counselor may destroy your marriage
Part 9: Cutting off communication
Part 10: How to choose sides in an abusive situation
Part 11: The strangeness of a spring break
Part 12: Filings for divorce and early rumblings at church
Part 13: What are those deacons good for anyway?
Part 14: The “repentance” game
Part 15: Isolation
Part 16: When the church goes off the rails
Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further
Part 18: Final church problems
Part 19: How to neutralize an abuser
Part 20: The saga concludes
Part 21: Updates
Part 22: The very end

Note: Thank you to the thousands of you including many who are local to us who went to my friends’ blog after I mentioned it last time. That means a lot to her because in these situations, abusers work overtime on protecting their image while trying to destroy their victim’s reputation. Getting the victim’s story out is important but often almost impossible for reasons that I will discuss over time.

In the abuse situation my family has been involved in, I have been privy to the correspondence from the abuser to the victim for a long time. As is typical, the abuser follows the Jekyll/Hyde paradigm so the emails are widely different in tone. As a rule, they fall into one of these three basic categories:

  • Nasty attacks on her character and refusals to do what the court has ordered him to do.
  • Playing the victim card himself while lecturing and sermonizing, claiming that she is mean (usually because she demands he follow the court settlement).
  • “Nice” emails in which he tries to act like nothing is wrong and they are good friends.

Last week, he sent an email that was sort of textbook. He was in sermonizing mode and upset that the victim had the audacity to require him to follow the settlement he signed. I am going to list a few of his points. According to him:

  • He is changing for the better and she is changing for the worse.
  • She knows the settlement “better than she knows her Bible.”
  • She is hurtful and abnormal because she won’t come to the door to greet him when he picks up the kids.
  • She “lives to make him miserable.”

At the end, he informed her that if she could not respond kindly to his email, to not respond at all.

I should mention that a few days later, he sent another nasty email accusing her of being a bad parent and yesterday, he sent another email accusing her of being rude because she does not answer his texts (she has told him repeatedly that she will not communicate with him by texting except in very limited situations but he never stops trying to stomp on that boundary).

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of abuse where somehow things are out of whack. Abusers are skilled at turning things around. All of a sudden, it is the victim that is evil while the abuser sanctimoniously quotes Bible verses and thunders condemnation. It can all sound very convincing, largely because abusers really do believe what they say themselves. Don’t ever forget that. Their indignation is not fake; they really do see themselves as victims.

You might wonder how the real victim reacted to those emails. The truth is she was unfazed and a bit bemused. She is able to read through his rants and recognize all the examples of attempted control, manipulation, delusion, and misrepresentation. She feels no need to defend herself and she does not respond to any of his attacks unless there is something transactional that needs to be addressed.

She has not always been that strong though…

Many of you are sadly going to find yourself in my position some day if you are not already there. You are going to be trying to help a victim deal with an abuser. And very honestly, you are probably going to find it very difficult.

You can’t just reason with a victim. Victims are not dumb. They are often intelligent successful people. But the truth is they very often do not operate or think in ways that most of us would consider rational.

Here is a quick illustration. If you are in a traffic accident and almost die, you likely may go through a time where you get scared every time you drive. In fact, you may find yourself unable to drive. The accident conditions your thinking to the point where you become irrational about driving.

PTSD is another example. Soldiers that experience extreme situations may be affected psychologically long after they get home. A moment on the battlefield may cripple them for years afterward. (As an aside, I recently asked a Christian expert for an abuse counselor recommendation and he told me to avoid Christian counselors and look for a PTSD counselor instead.)

Abuse victims are conditioned by the abuser to think in irrational ways. You may hear the term “walking on eggshells” to describe what happens. Essentially, abuse victims suffer so much that they eventually get to the point where they will do anything to avoid more abuse. In short, they give in to the control of the abuser and agree to do whatever necessary to make him happy.

There are two problems with that. First, the victim gives up full control of her life over time in very extreme, unnatural ways. Second, the abuser is never really pacified anyway. He simply moves the goalposts and demands more.

How strong does this control get? Way stronger than you think. It is again a phenomenon that does not even make sense to those in normal relationships. Let me try to explain it with a few illustrations from the past year.

When my friend left her husband and went to her parents 900 miles away, she took the children with her. That night she and the kids slept in her parent’s house under their protection. I was beyond relieved because I naively thought that she was no longer going to be under his power.

I was wrong… If you asked my friend today, she would tell you that it would be months before she felt safe from him and months before he was no longer controlling her. In fact, he almost convinced her to come home just a few days after she got there. From 900 miles away, with very little leverage (remember she had the children with her), he still had immense power over her.

A few months went by and my friend and her parents generously invited the abuser up to their home to see the kids during his vacation. They made a mistake in allowing him to stay in a spare bedroom. (By the way, that is a horrible idea if you ever face that decision.) I thought my friend was strong enough to handle the situation (she was sleeping in another room) but I was wrong. Within a few days, she was fully back under his control in spite of the fact that he clearly was as abusive, manipulative and controlling as ever.

Here is the thing I want you to understand about this situation. It was not that my friend did not know she was being controlled and abused that week. She was miserable and desperate for him to go home. She hated what he did to her. However, she felt powerless to resist. In fact, I begged her to simply leave and go stay with a relative until he went home. She could have stopped everything in its tracks. But she couldn’t take that step; he had too much power over her.

That week was a week where I looked at pure evil at work and I will never forget it. Looking back, you could ask her why she allowed that to happen and she would tell you she can’t explain it. It is just where she was at that point. It is easy for those of us on the other side to oversimplify this and blame her for her actions but this is just not simple.

I have only begun the story and I will talk about this in more detail but I want to say this: yes, my friend can readily dismiss her abuser’s delusional sermons today but a year ago, they would have affected in a very sinister way. The psychology of abuse is a very complex and dangerous thing. Your first lesson is just to realize that: what may seem simple to you is not simple. What is common sense to you may not be possible for a victim to do. Things get topsy turvy in the land of abuse. Think Alice in Wonderland…

Read on: Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle