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Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Nicole Dominguez

Imagine a church elder coming to you after church and admitting that his wife, the director of women’s ministry, was verbally abusing him. There may be many emotions that come to the surface in the space of seconds: confusion, doubt, sadness, anger. When considering the possibility that a friend or church member, perhaps someone in leadership, could be abusive is a painful reality to come to terms with. On this week's episode of ANN InDepth, hosts Jennifer Stymiest and Sam Neves discuss how to address abuse in your friends or your own life, with Rene Drumm, the lead researcher of abuse within the church. 

We in the church may believe that we are immune to the ugly violation of abuse, indeed many chose Christians as their spouses in the belief that regular church members could never have abusive tendencies. Unfortunately, this is not the case. A survey conducted with 49 churches, and over a thousand participants, found that “the rates of physical abuse were about on par with that of national studies”. In fact, Drumm states that the rates of men in abusive relationships is probably much higher than documented due to the stigma surrounding abuse, and the limited definitions of what is considered abusive. Some use religion as a script to justify abusive behavior, warping the structure and practice of biblical marriage through a misuse of scripture. The true experience of abuse can only be known in full by those within the abusive relationship, therefore, for someone to come forward about the abuse they’ve suffered could be the result of months or even years worth of mental and emotional preparation to finally identify the abuse and build the strength to address it. Timing is an important factor in the process of sharing domestic abuse. If the abused are not ready to come forward then it could mean a setback in their freedom.

There are many reasons individuals hesitate to come forward or even share about the abuse. Firstly, abuse often comes through isolating the abused from family and friends to ensure that no one notices, making it difficult to reach out without alerting the abuser and risking further abuse. Secondly, abusers often justify their actions by blaming the victim, making them think that it is their fault that they are abused. This kind of psychological manipulation, called gaslighting, forms a psychological conditioning that prevents the individual from seeing the abuse as anything but what they deserve or outside of normal responses. As Drumm mentions, the two hesitations are not always isolated, but are at times a domino affect. She clarifies by saying socialisation with people outside of the abusers sphere of power helps the individual to recognize the abuse, challenging the narrative that verbal, physical, emotional or financial abuse is normal or deserved.

Another, equally damaging cause for delay in discussing their abuse, is unfair stigmatization. There is a stereotype assigned to abuse that denies the complex nuance which could help people identify the pain in their life as abuse. Abuse has been characterized in media and culture as a man beating or yelling at a woman. Unfortunately, this frame is too small to fit the larger, more common examples of abuse, such as women abusing men, sexual abuse, financial control, emotional or psychological manipulation which convinces the abused that their emotions, opinions, or fears are invalid, sexual abuse of not respecting your partners boundries or safety, and more. The belief that only “weak” individuals can be abused is the most damaging aspect to the stigmatization of abuse. “Strong” women are just as susceptible to abuse, especially since most abuse is gradual. The small things that are deemed romantic such as jealousy, love bombing, wanting to know everything you did in a day, easily go unnoticed until they reach dangerous levels.

For Christians, there is yet another layer of the stigma: the shame of a failed marriage. Though this is not isolated to Christians, the fear is exacerbated by the misinterpretation of the marriage relationship. As Drumm states, “I think that our theology does lend itself, when used wrongly, to keep people in an abusive relationship longer. We value the marriage relationship more than we value the individual lives that are in that relationship.” When concepts like, headship, submission, and leadership are misunderstood, biblical marriage becomes yet another casualty to abuse and manipulation, convincing the abused that not only is such abuse normal, but ordained by God. Having an abusive spouse in church leadership, such as a pastor, elder, bible study or ministry leader, can increase the fear that they will not be believed if they speak out. However, involvement in the church does not mean they are exempt from abusive behavior. 

So how do we handle it? Whether the abused or the abuser, or the friend they confide in, there are means to confront abuse. Building a relationship where the abuse can be shared is a vital first step. This is necessary no matter your position, because it is a safe space for confession and transparency. As the person creating this safe space, Drumm encourages people to validate their admission by simply saying “I’m sorry”, listen without judgement, and have resources available for them. If they are abused, offer shelter resources, if it is an abuser, implore them to seek counseling. In both cases, the original image of biblical marriage must be restored in their eyes. To live with a damaging image of marriage is to hurt yourself, your spouse, and your spiritual health, therefore it is important to restore the biblical image. “It's mutual submission,” says Drumm, “to submit to one another and love each other as Jesus loved the church and gave his life for the church. That's something that's wonderful and inviting and always safe, so if a relationship doesn't have that safety, then it's a problem.” Abuse is never the fault of the victim, and a conversation that deserves continuous and consistent attention.