Thursday, December 17, 2009

Identifying Abuse

The first and hardest step for me in healing from abuse has been to understand and admit that I was in an abusive relationship. If you are in an abusive relationship, or have a loved one who you wish to help, the first thing you must realize is that it is very difficult for a victim to realize the truth. If a victim admits they have been abused, they must accept that they have been used by the person they have loved the best, spent the most time and energy on. That is no easy thing. (For ease of discussion, I am going to use "he" for the abuser and "she" for the victim for now. In a future post, I will discuss tendencies between genders in abuse.)

There are many excuses a victim makes for an abuser. Two of the most common are 1) but he never hit me*, and 2) everyone does that, so it's not really abuse. Both excuses downplay the impact of the abuse. The first operates under the very common and unfortunate attitude that abuse is physical violence. In actuality, physical violence is only the more easily demonstrated portion of abuse. Look at it this way. If a husband tripped and fell against his wife, breaking her arm, it would be merely an accident. If, however, a husband wanted a wife to make him dinner and pushes her against a wall, breaking her arm, it would be abuse. The difference is not the injury. The difference is the emotional environment around the injury. The injury itself is incidental.

The second excuse I have heard (everyone does that) is used when a victim has been convinced that the behavior is normal. Sometimes it is because the victim was abused as a child. Rarely it is because the victim herself is an abuser. Often, it is because the victim does not want to be seen as different from everyone around her. Some abusers use the fear of being unloved to isolate their victims by convincing them that they deserve the abuse or that it is normal.

In an LDS framework, abuse has a particular outlet. The LDS Church is structured under the order of the Priesthood. When the priesthood is misunderstood as a tool of authority, it becomes the method of abuse. The scriptures call this "unrighteous dominion". Spouses are taught to honor each other, to look first within themselves to make changes in the marriage, and that marriage is a sacred and holy covenant which should not be broken. All of these things are true and good most of the time. However, without a complete understanding of the Priesthood and the covenant of marriage, these attitudes can utterly trap a victim.

To use an analogy which was used on me, imagine you are at a baseball game, and a man trips and spills beer all over you. You tell him not to worry, that it was an accident, and you forgive him. Nine people out of ten will look at you and think "Oh, what a nice person." The last will see potential prey. There are two parts to an abusive relationship: the abuser and the victim.

When I was presented with that, I thought to myself "but I want to be a nice person! I don't want to turn my back on Christian values of kindness and forgiveness, simply because there are those out there who will take advantage of me." Victims tend to see the world with a paradigm of mutuality. They want relationships to be mutually beneficial. Abusers tend to see the world with a paradigm of control. They want to be in control of their environment as much as possible, and are willing to go to lengths they would otherwise be horrified by to obtain it. A victim does not need to abandon divine compassion. It needs to be tempered, however, with divine judgment. We spend so much time avoiding judging others, we sometimes forget to judge situations. Relationships need to be examined with guidance from the Holy Spirit to make certain that they are divinely balanced. If the bad in a relationship cannot be pruned away to leave room for the good, sometimes the entire relationship must be "hewn down", however painful the process is. Otherwise, it will take over the entire life of the vineyard. Once a victim has done her best (and that can only be determined by the victim and the Lord), and the abusive relationship is destroying the rest of her life, it is time for the final harvest.

One last thing I would like to mention. Couples counseling is strongly not recommended for couples in abusive relationships. Couples counseling only sets a new playground for abuse. Unless a counselor is trained and experienced with abuse, the abuse can go on during counseling. The best way for a third party to measure abuse is not in the actions of the abuser, but in the reactions of the victim. When a person becomes familiar with the patterns of abuse and otherwise seemingly irrational reactions of a victim, it is easy to spot the difference between true abuse and "mere" marital disharmony.

For more information, please read this. It is a wonderfully balanced discussion on abuse in an LDS framework.

*If you have a loved one in an emotionally abusive relationship, I strongly recommend "But He Never Hit Me" by Dr. Jill Murray. I believe that book literally and figuratively saved my life.


  1. I'm sorry you're going through this, Silver Rain, but I applaud your strength in getting out.

    This post hit home to me. I've never been in an abusive romantic relationship, but my first mission companion was emotionally abusive to me. What you describe here mirrors very closely what happened to me. It took me a long time (long after the emergency transfer that got me out of the situation) to actually place the label "abuse" on the situation. Once I did, that was the first step to truly healing.

    Healing took time, but it did come, through the grace of God manifest in the Atonement of Christ. The Atonement is for more than just our sins, it's also there to heal us from the effects of those who have sinned against us.

  2. Really a wonderful post. I'm wondering, though, if you or any of your lovely commentators might have anything to say on the subject of parent-child abuse or neglect?

  3. Thank you, everyone, for commenting.

    Keri points out something important: any relationship can be abusive. I have been in several (usually mildly) abusive relationships. Now that I can identify abuse for what it is, I can take steps to eliminate the abuse from my relationships. As I mentioned above, there are two parts to an abusive relationship. (A future post will discuss that in more detail.)

    Child abuse is no different in dynamics except for the fact that the child is truly a victim, without education or resources to go for help. Children need aware adults in their lives to help protect them.

    I'd also like to point out that children are also often abusers.

    Abuse is an outgrowth of a desire to control another person. I think almost everyone has felt that desire at times in their lives, but some people act on it. Learning and applying the gospel can heal an abuser as well as a victim.

  4. Brilliant post, by which I mean it matches conclusions and ideas I've been thinking about too. :)

    Last summer, my mom started opening up to me about how my dad treats her. I'd always known he treated her badly, but I'd never known it bothered her, or that it was wrong. I grew up watching it and thought all men were like that. He never hit her either.

    It finally dawned on me that my dad was abusive. I completely freaked out and got hysterical, especially once I identified the effect of the abuse on me (it really screws up the daughter to watch her mother take abuse and insist the abuser is a great guy and daughter has to love and respect him). My mom immediately turned on me and told the entire family I was psychotic. She did a lot to completely destroy all my sibling relationships, lest anyone believe me when I claimed that mom thought dad was abusive too. The dynamic of excusing our angry father is so strong that all my siblings insisted dad doesn't have a bad temper or get angry, because to say otherwise would obviously hurt mom's feelings.

    Identifying the abusive relationship that my parents had helped me immeasurably in rooting out both victim and abusive patterns in my own life. But wow, has it been traumatic.

    Dad's been in several stake presidencies, a bishopric counselor, and even a bishop, in between other big Church callings. I think that's why mom keeps covering for him. If God thinks he's such a great guy, why should she disagree just because he swears at her for putting salt in her OWN hot cereal? (Yep, dad's that much of a control freak.)

  5. SilverRain,

    Regarding your comment that "abuse is an outgrowth of a desire to control another person," would you mind elaborating on this either as a comment or as a new post? I think this is key and is easily misunderstood.

    In particular, would you address the difference between righteous dominion vs. unrighteous dominion?

    In my mind, we have an obligation and even a stewardship in many cases to influence others for good. I think the trouble begins when our desire to influence becomes a desire to control.

    In more severe cases it would be much less subtle, but I wonder if my "natural man" reaction of disappointment when others choose differently than I would like them to is a more mild form of control/abuse. One of the hardest tests for me is finding that balance between encouraging others toward what I feel is right, allowing them agency to choose for themselves, and then loving the same regardless of the choice.

    Perhaps it is in a different class, but I suppose I am guilty of control/abuse in the sense that in hindsight, I see situations where I have judged another's choices and then withheld love or have allowed my disapproval of their actions to taint my feelings towards them.

    I appreciate any comments you might have along these lines....

  6. This post shows how far you have come. To recognize what happened to you and then be able to write about it so well is great.

    I'll have to look at the book, not because I'm experiencing abuse, but because I want to be more aware and help others.

    I wonder about the cultural components of abuse. In my Spanish branch it seems to be an accepted plague.


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