How to choose sides in an abusive situation (Part 10)

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Here are the other parts of this 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

Important note: Some of you might want to challenge me on the issue of taking sides in these situations. You might say that there should not be sides in a marriage or within a church. I get that but I disagree. Abuse situations are not normal marital situations; they represent a conflict between good and evil and we need to be willing to intentionally take a side in those conflicts. Standing in the middle is not an option for those that want to make a positive difference in the world. That goes for Christians especially.

The key thing you have to understand about abuse situations is that true reality can be hard to determine. The victim often does not have a good grasp on reality because she has been subjected to mind-controlling tactics. The abuser often does not have a good grasp on reality either. If he did, he would likely not be an abuser.

In this situation, I will admit that I struggled as I watched people in my former church refuse to take sides and sometimes even take the wrong side. Some of those people should have known better and disgraced themselves. On the other hand, I have had to learn to give grace because most simply didn’t know what really happened and were getting their information from a very believable abuser while the victim stayed quiet.

Yes, the abuser was believable even while his perception of reality was not grounded in anything resembling truth. Here is an example of how the abuser’s “truth” changed over time. When the victim first left, he played his repentance orchestra and apparently for a while believed himself to be an abuser, stating that the victim was right to leave him. Over time, that changed. A few months into the separation, he started to project a good portion of the blame onto the victim, accusing her of contributing to the problems herself and overreacting to his problems. Now? Well, a few days ago he sent an email that stated that her notion of his abuse existed “only in her head.”

Now here is where things get worse. After an abuser has reprogrammed his view of reality, he comes across as sincere and ultra believable with his new story and he gets the people around him believing the same fiction. They then all feed off each other. I have already talked about how this happened with his incompetent “counselor” and it happend with others close to him too. The fact is that if an abuser is spinning a believable story, he is just going to end up with a circle of influence that nods its collective head and cheers him on in his Quixotic quest for justice, never realizing that they are just pawns in his game.

Honestly, the abuser’s current story is pretty laughable. He now says the victim left him after a clandestine, months-long plot to destroy the marriage and a recent email says she made things miserable for him in the end because he found out about “her affair” (by this he means her secret decision to get help from Marla and me). It is hard for me to wrap my head around why anyone would believe his nonsense. However, the truth is some do and people have been hoodwinked by abusers in similar ways for a long time. As I have said many times, he is no one special; no, he is just a run-of-the-mill abuser using the abuser playbook.

So while it would be easy for me to sit back and throw rocks at all the people that ended up on the wrong side of this, I have to acknowledge the complexity of the situation and extend some grace, especially to those who were only casually acquainted with the facts.

If you are confronted with this issue and want to know how to help, what do you do? Which side do you believe? Here are a few thoughts:

When a victim says she is being abused, believe her until proven otherwise.
There are obviously going to be conflicting stories in abuse situations but remember that while some people might occasionally cry wolf, that is rare in abuse situations. If a woman comes forward, it is far more likely that the abuse is worse than she says rather than better. If you are going to protect people in an imperfect world where the truth is not easy to determine, you have to default at least initially toward supporting a victim over an abuser even though there is a chance you might be wrong.

If an abuser says he has been abusive, believe him.
Especially at the beginning of an event where things come to a head, abusers will play the repentance orchestra and admit to some things. Listen carefully to them at that point because they will likely not be so honest again. Don’t expect them to fully confess; you will likely get a small subset of his offenses. However, if an abuser admits to abuse, you can safely believe him and should not stop believing he is an abuser down the road when he decides to change his story.

It is always wise to try to get BOTH sides of a story.
Guys, I have to tell you that if there is one thing that bewildered me about this situation, it is the fact that numerous people came to conclusions without ever bothering to contact the victim to get her story. They listened to the abuser and just fell for his fictional story like a sunfish hitting a shiny gold hook. I can’t explain that. These were people, some of which were considered wise, who should have known better. Don’t ever fall into that trap.

You should NOT believe an abuser when they say they have changed (at least not for a long time).
Abusers will always tell you they have changed. They really believe it too. However, almost always, they have not changed at all. Only time will tell and most experts would say that the minimum evaluation time needs to be at least a year.

If you are Christian, remember that abusers know how to milk the system. They know how to repent in altar calls and how to even get up in front of the church and cry a bit. They know that the Bible says to forgive those that repent from sin and they use that to their advantage. Don’t be fooled. Abuse is rampant in Christianity because abusers know how to exploit the Christian ideas of repentance and forgiveness.

If you don’t know who to believe, at least be careful not to give support to the alleged abuser.
In my opinion, our abuse situation could potentially have had a better ending if not a great ending if not for the fact that abuser was able to get together a group of people who fell for his story (without ever double-checking with the victim) and then became his biggest cheerleaders. That is sobering but unfortunately quite normal in these situations. Be very very careful about this. If you provide emotional support to an abuser in a way where you start siding with him against the victim, you are essentially allowing him to shift the responsibility from himself to his victim.

When that starts happening in an abuse situation, there is probably very little hope. In fact, I will tell you that in numerous emails to the victim, the abuser justified his behavior by saying that everyone he knew agreed with him and the victim had no supporters whatsoever. The sad truth is he was close to right. Not all but very many of the people he talked to fell for his story and became his cheerleaders, empowering him to continue down his delusional path that led to a more and more fictional reality.

I have sort of come to the conclusion that all of us have far more power in abuse situations than we think. It does largely come down to how we respond especially to the abuser’s attempts to reshape our view of reality. Be very careful.

Greg Howlett

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