Getting help for an abuse victim (Abuse series part 5)

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

In part 4, I discussed how we identified that the victim was in an abusive and very dangerous situation. Today I want to talk about what we decided to do about it.

I am a rationalist (as opposed to a typical post modernist) in that I value experts. I don’t believe all opinions are created equal. So in this situation, I did what I always do when I need help: I started looking for experts. I have maybe hundreds of hours invested in studying abuse since this started but I was especially in over my head at that point in time and I knew I needed help. Consequently, we begged the victim to go get real help from either her parents, our church, and/or abuse professionals.

The victim refused to get help from any of those sources. If you ever are involved in a situation like this, you will see the same thing happen and is important to know why.

  1. She refused to get help from a true professional because the abuser managed every dime coming in and going out of the house with an iron fist. She did not believe she could hide the expenses from him and of course, getting him to agree to let her get help was out of the question.
  2. She refused to get help from her parents because strangely enough, she felt guilty about dumping her problems on them. She saw the problems as her own fault and thought it was a cross she should bear without bothering them.
  3. She refused to get help from our church because she had tried to get help from the church before but it had miserably failed her already.

I want to elaborate on the church situation briefly. We had all been attending the same church for several years (my family had been there about a dozen years at the time). Starting many years ago, she had gone to the pastor and his wife for help several times about some (not all) of their marital issues. At best, they had put in a token effort to help. In general, the pastor was undisciplined, lazy, and just going through the motions. In fact, he was looking for another job much of that time. (He resigned immediately after this all came to a head and is currently at another church.)

I actually called the pastor to notify him of the fact that the victim has left to go to her parents and he admitted to me then that he had suspected abuse problems beyond what he had even been told but done nothing. To make matters worse, even though the pastor knew of big problems the abuser had (including infidelity issues), he allowed the abuser to be elected a deacon during that time and put him in charge of AWANA (a large Wednesday night children’s program).

I will talk more about this in the future but put yourself in the victim’s shoes for a second. She had gone to her pastor (and a few other leaders of the church). Rather than holding him accountable, the abuser was taken out to eat a few times for “counseling.” There was almost no follow up, no accountability plan, no contacting the victim to see if the behavior was continuing. And on top of that, the pastor was elevating him in leadership within the church. Clearly, the victim was right to put no trust in her church for help.

If you think what I just said is bad, just wait until you hear what would happen later with that pastor and then the rest of the leadership of that church. I will table that for the moment though. To get back to the story, once I understood we were on our own, I got busy researching and put together a plan. Here were the key components:

Help her truly understand that her situation was not normal or acceptable.
You have to understand that victims struggle with this. They are programmed to believe that they are in a “normal” relationship. (To this day, even though he proclaims he has “repented,” this particular abuser will not admit he abused the victim. In fact, just last week he sent her an email asking her to refrain from using the word “abuse” in regards to him because he found it “offensive.”). Because of this programming, if you tell a victim they are a victim, they will not necessarily believe you. Very often, they will point to someone that has it worse than them as proof that they are not being abused.

I would not recommend you use the word “abuse” for a while if you try to help someone. Take your time or you will lose all credibility and possibly lose your chance to help. Remember that victims are programmed to remove anything from their lives that will anger their abuser. If they start to see you as a potential threat to create waves in their marriage, they may cut off communication with you as a defense mechanism. In our case, it would be several months before we used the word “abuse” with the victim.

Help her recognize her abuser for who he was.
As I have discussed already, abusers are always abusers but they are not always mean. They flip back and forth between Jekyll and Hyde. Victims see hope during the Jekyll times and want to believe that the abuser has changed. Without exception, the Jekyll moments are short lived and the end result is that the victim is yanked around in a never-ending emotional war. My goal was to help the victim understand that regardless of whether the abuser was Hyde or Jekyll at any time, it was going to be short lived and was not representative of any change either for the better or worse. The abuser was simply an abuser regardless of his tactic at the moment.

Helping victims understand this flip-flopping/abuse cycle helps them stay more emotionally stable and eventually helps them start to see through the fog and think rationally. If you end up in a similar situation, please do not give the victim false hope that the abuser has changed when he brings home a dozen roses and apologizes profusely for abusing her the night before. That kind of gesture is meaningless in an abusive relationship.

Help her establish boundaries.
One of the key ways you recognize an abuser is his refusal to allow the victim any boundaries at all. It is purely a control thing. In fact, to this day, the abuser routinely stomps on the victim’s boundaries. For example, even though she has told him he is not to come to her door when he picks up the children, he will come up with a flimsy excuse to do so. When actually living in the same house as an abuser, having any boundaries at all is practically impossible. An abuser does not let his victim walk away from an argument for example. He either physically keeps her in the room or follows her to whatever room she goes, trying to wear her down psychologically. In fact, victims very often get no unsupervised time away from abusers even when things are “good.” He either does not let her leave the house or if she does, tries to control her while out with non-ending texts and calls.

In our situation, we tried to work with the victim to help her start to establish and maintain simple common sense boundaries. Unfortunately, it did not work. The abuser relentlessly tore down her boundaries, usually by using their children as weapons. She essentially felt she had to give in to whatever he demanded because she was worried about what he would do with the children if she didn’t.

As it turned out, the victim’s inability to maintain boundaries was a clear signal that we had to change strategies and step up our involvement. And so we did. While that next step still did not fix a broken situation, it would at least lead us to know that she was going to have to separate at least for a time. I will discuss that in the next post.

Read on: Part 6: Taking the next step