October 1, 2021

The Long-Lasting Effects of Domestic Abuse

This is the second of a two-part series on domestic abuse. You can read part one here.

I know it sounds mental, but being free doesn’t necessarily mean that someone lives in freedom. When it comes to the horrors of abuse, simply ‘being free’—from the terror, abuse, control, or fear—doesn’t actually mean that overnight everything suddenly becomes wonderful. Someone may be ‘safe and free’ from their abuser—in the sense that their life is no longer under their abuser’s control—but they will still be very much impacted by the trauma.

Last year, we did a Weekender on the topic, Abuse, The Gospel and The Local Church. During one of the panels, someone asked a question, and in my response I shared a story I hadn’t told before.

Instinctive Fear

Early on in my role as a women’s worker at Niddrie Community Church, I was standing in the porch of the church building with one of my colleagues who was really mad and aggressive about something that had just kicked off. Now, let me be very clear, this anger wasn’t remotely aimed at me, and I knew I wasn’t in any danger from them at all. They were a teddy bear—all growl but squishy inside.

Yet, in the enclosed space, my fear-response instinctively kicked in—every ounce of me freaked out, and my nerves were instantly on high alert. I completely withdrew. I was terrified, and my whole response was one I recognised immediately. Years—decades—after I was free from violence, I still wasn’t living in freedom at that moment. My past was impacting my life, and fear was ruling and controlling me.

Here’s the point: The effects of abuse endure long after the abuse has ceased. They won’t easily go away, and they can’t be swept under the carpet. Even when freed from abuse, many people will continue to have ongoing struggles.

Here are just a few of them.

1. Fear

In the 1991 film Sleeping with the Enemy, a very young Julia Roberts plays a woman called Laura, who faked her own death in an attempt to escape domestic abuse. Even now, I remember the moment when she discovers she hadn’t eluded her controlling husband—he had found her.

For many who escape domestic abuse, fear may be a constant companion, and for good reason. Many victims who have escaped always feel at risk of being found. They live with constant paranoia, sometimes enduring name changes, new addresses, and identity protection. These things may provide some relief, but many victims still have to live with the knowledge that their abuser may find them.

This is an oppressive and exhausting way to live. Yes, injunctions and legal ramifications can be put in place, but safety can’t be guaranteed. How can you feel safe when you can’t ever drop your guard?

2. Shame

I know it seems an innocuous question on the surface (and it’s one that crosses most people’s minds), but I hate it when someone unthinkingly asks: “Why didn’t you just leave?” or “Why didn’t you tell someone?”. As with most things in life, it’s just not that simple. One of the significant reasons people don’t ‘just leave’ situations of domestic abuse is the shame. As one writer notes:

There is no correct way to handle abuse. No blueprint. No how-to book. Each experience is unique, but one common feeling is shame. Part of that shame for me was rooted in the fact that I did not know how to process what I experienced or how to move forward. If you’ve experienced . . . abuse – something that no one should have to deal with – just remember: you did your best, and you do not deserve to feel ashamed.

3. Guilt

“… See what you made me do!” It’s not uncommon for an abuser to justify or excuse their sinful abuse, shifting the blame on to their blameless victim. The abused cannot make the abuser sin, yet many abusers try to convince their victims that the abuse is their own fault. That in some way they deserved the treatment. 

Let’s not be fooled: there is choice here. An abuser chooses to sinfully abuse their loved one. It’s really that simple. The sin of abuse spews out of their selfish hearts and desires. James 4:1 is very clear. Sadly, many victims may believe, even after they have left, that in some way, shape, or form, it was their fault. They live with crushing guilt that’s not theirs to carry.

4. Anger & Bitterness

I remember the first time I really grasped the implications of God’s total sovereignty. I was raging. Raging that a loving God had allowed painful things to happen. I wrestled with this for a long time. I questioned His love, His compassion. How is this loving? How is this compassionate? How is this for my good and His glory? Then I’d swing back to shame and guilt—How could I, a sinner, question a holy God?

Mez addresses this in his book The Creaking on the Stairs:

Two decades of living for Jesus has evened the odds against two decades of self-loathing, shame, anger and destruction. It seems that even the sovereign control over her [his abuser’s] death means that I am able to be conflicted without complete self-implosion. The same Holy Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is helping me to draw on my decades of biblical knowledge and personal experience with which to vanquish the poisonous darts of the devil... I want God to overlook my sins. I like it when He does that. But hers? That’s a stretch. I tell myself I’m a better person than she was. Is that true? Maybe now. But any good in me belongs to the Holy Spirit. I hurt people. I abused people. I stole. I lied. I murdered in my heart. I too have done awful things. (6–7)

Is There Hope?  

We all know the answer to this question. For the believer, we can find and lean on God in the midst of our struggle. But, we must take care not to be glib about the very real pain. Biblical truth doesn’t change or waver. God is absolutely faithful and loving. He does bring hope and even reconciliation, but if we aren’t careful or wise about how we share these truths with people, we can cause additional pain to someone who’s already hurting. God is so much bigger than what they have been through. We want them to turn to Him in all things.

What an abused person has had to endure is awful, but some way, somehow, they need to see, experience, trust, and understand the true unconditional love of their Saviour. We can walk with them as we disciple and love them well as a Christian family. We can model what a loving, caring, godly, and biblical relationship looks like.

In part-one of this article, I shared how we train our women’s workers to think through domestic abuse and how we care for the women and families we meet.

As local churches, we must face the uncomfortable truth that domestic abuse may be happening in our congregations. We must have a good response when someone discloses abuse, something better than simply saying: “You can’t divorce them?” There is so much we can do to ensure we care for people well:

  • Offering training to staff and church members on domestic abuse—what it may look like and how to come alongside the abused and deal with the abuser.
  • Have clear, specific safeguarding policies in place.
  • One-to-one accountability—People don’t tend to tell random people painful and private details about their lives. Real, intentional, one-to-one relationships that are serious about investing in each other’s lives give opportunity for disclosure as well as seeing any concerning warning signs.
  • Have an appointed person within your church that people who have concerns can go for assistance and direction.

Domestic abuse is something that affects many that we come in contact with. We may or may not know who they are. We need to be truly invested in the communities in which we live and the lives of those we are around. We should be ready to hold out the hope of the gospel to both the abused and also the abuser. We can’t stop the abuse, but we can help those who suffer through it.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Cor. 12:9 ESV)

Check out our upcoming UK conference tour which explores the theme of pastoring the abused and the abusers in our churches and communities.

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