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Things I Wish You Understood: An Open Letter to Ministers From a Family Violence Survivor

To the ministers of the church universal

I am a family violence survivor. It seems weird to me to say that, because my experiences don’t meet the stereotypical and horrific stories of constant physical or sexual abuse that come to mind when I hear the words “family violence’. I am hesitant to speak, lest someone tell me “that’s not really abuse” (see point 4). And yet, I sit in church, during sermons on marriage, gender roles and divorce and I struggle. As I struggle, I think to myself “there are some things this minister could do to help me right now. I wonder if they know that?”

So I’m writing to you. Not to tell you that you’re doing a bad job, not to condemn you, but to give you one example of what goes on in the mind and body of one woman, while she’s listening to you preach, and trying to hear the Word of God. I’m writing to tell you some small things you can do to make it that little bit easier for me to listen and learn, and actually hear what you are saying.   

  1. When passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, Colossians 3:18-19 or 1 Peter 3 1:7 come up, I am filled with dread, particularly if I don’t know you well enough to anticipate what you’re going to say. My heart starts to race, my breathing gets shallower, and I’m sitting on the edge of my seat. I go into “fight or flight” mode. In fact, my body, quite independently of me, is preparing to be abused and to defend itself against that. This is an involuntary response to past trauma. It has absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with what I’ve been through. You are just preaching your sermon, but I am fighting a whole battle with my emotions and my body, just to sit and listen.

    If I decide to stay, I will have to be hyper-vigilant, and be ready to mentally block you out if you start interpreting Bible in ways that align with my experience of abuse. The price for me of not maintaining vigilance is to be spun back into involuntary re-enactments of the feelings and thought patterns I experienced during abuse. This cycle of re-enactments may go on for hours, days or weeks after it’s been triggered. It’s traumatic, and horrible.

    I will stay in flight or fight and hyper-vigilance until I hear something from you that explicitly says, for instance, that a husband’s headship does not give him a right to abuse his wife, or that there are situations where divorce is biblical. To someone who is in flight or fight mode, you are a potential threat until you prove yourself otherwise.

  2. If you want me to get anything out of your sermon at all, please lead with something that acknowledges the topic can be difficult for those that have been abused, or that there are limitations to what you are going to say. If you tack that on at the end, I may not still be there if I’m having a particularly bad day. I definitely won’t have gotten anything out of your sermon, and I will absolutely need to leave very quickly at the end of the service and cry, deep breathe or otherwise get back on an even keel.  Sitting for the entire length of a sermon in that state is exhausting. I certainly won’t be ready for fellowship at the end of the service.

    If you start with an acknowledgement of that kind (and mean it), my “fight or flight” response will drop down several notches, and I will be able to listen to what you are saying. 

  3. I am hugely sensitive to tone of voice and body language. I won’t just listen to your words – I’ll look at your actions, and I’ll read try to read the emotion and mindset behind them. I’ve had to learn to look beyond words. Too many abusive people are very smooth talkers who say all the right things, while doing the opposite. My radar to “I’m just saying what needs to be said, but really, I think this is a bit unnecessary and a fuss over nothing” has, of necessity, become finely tuned.

    If you want me to be able to listen to you, be mindful of the non-verbal messages you are sending.
  4. One of the deepest wounds I carry is that of invalidation and dismissal. Some days it hurts worse than any of the rest of the abuse. This is because it was the first wound, and the one that is under everything else. Repeated invalidation and dismissal was the first kind of abuse, and the most common for me. Everything else stems from that.  I spent my time during abuse begging to be heard, thinking that if I could just explain it right, he would surely understand and just change the way he dealt with me when he was unhappy. I was met with invalidation and dismissal, explicit and implied: “other women’s husbands beat them…you don’t realise how good you have it”, “you’re childish”, and “you’re making a big deal out of nothing”. There were so many incidences of invalidation that happened in so many different ways that it became the norm of my life.

    I therefore pushed my feelings down, and tried to suppress them. When I couldn’t, I took my resultant depression and anxiety as a sign that I really was “crazy” and somehow deficient in the ways that I was being told that I was. I need you to know this because it takes a great deal of courage for me to raise issues with you, and the way you respond to me is either going to reinforce the shame cycle or help me heal. When I raise an issue, unless I know you very well and trust you, “flight or fight” has already kicked in. Part of my soul is cringing away in shuddering vulnerability waiting to be dismissed in some way. Even if I do know and trust you, I can still feel like this.

    I don’t need you to agree with me, but I need you to treat me with respect, and not invalidate what I’m feeling and thinking even if it seems trivial to you. I need to feel heard.
  5. I want to hear biblical teaching on these passages. I really, really do. I’m hungry for it in the way I hunger for air and food. You have such an important part to play in this. Your voice on this topic has the potential to heal some of the wounds within me. Preach the Word faithfully and bravely – but sensitively. I need teaching to overcome the negative thought patterns in my head. I need words, teaching and Scripture to hold on to when something tips me back into the thought patterns and beliefs that held me in an abusive situation for so long. I need something to hold on to when “a wife must not leave her husband”, or “God hates divorce” starts on repeating in my head.

    You have the power to trigger powerful feelings of condemnation and shame in me, or to help me fight those. Use it well.
  6. When you teach, please, please don’t just focus on husbands and the role they have in servant leadership. I fell in love with the ideal I was given; “submission is easy, because your husband will love you the way Christ loves the church.” I heard it again and again in youth group. “Wives are to submit, husbands are the head of the house, but it’s OK, because you choose very carefully so that he will only ever be looking out for your best.” Cue teenage girls looking starry-eyed and imagining a life with a mini-Christ as their husband.

    This is the Christian equivalent of a fairy tale. The reality is that both husband and wife are sinful, and because of the fall, we have tendencies to warp the way our marriage roles are supposed to work. A husband is not always going to love his wife the way Christ loves the church, and she is not always going to want to submit to him or respect him. Give equal treatment to both roles: what it means, and what it doesn’t mean. Talk about sin and how it effects marriage and relationships. Give me guidance on what to do when things aren’t going well. Spell out the obvious stuff; it’s not obvious to someone in abuse, and some abusive people are masterful at twisting the Bible for their own ends.  For instance, when you read “Wives submit to your husbands, as to Christ”, be aware that there’s a part in my head that takes that to extremes and equates that to doing whatever he says, to agreeing with whatever he wants to do and to never disagreeing with him unless he’s explicitly and obviously going against the Bible. While that might sound extreme, when “as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22) gets explained as “in the same way as you would to Christ”, it leaves that interpretation open. It’s not hard to make your husband the equivalent of the Roman Catholic Pope…particularly when your husband keeps subtly pushing that line of thinking himself. I need you to be explicit on what that verse means and doesn’t mean.
  7. I am not alone in this. If the statistics are 1 in 4 women (and some men as well) suffer some kind of abuse, there are a whole lot of other people, too, sitting out the pews also keyed up to various degrees of fight and flight. Be gentle with us!
  8. You don’t have to get it right every time. I’m working on my own stuff, and gradually overcoming it, as God heals me. I don’t expect you to get it right all the time, and I know that you’ll say and do things that will trigger me. I know that it probably won’t be your fault. I know you are not the one who abused me, and you are not responsible for my wounds and scars. At the end of the day, all I really need from you is to know is that you’re aware, and that you are willing to listen respectfully.  

    Every time you show sensitivity on this topic, you build my trust. Every time you preach servant leadership and follow through with actions, you build my trust.
    Whether you realise it or not, your words and actions, and the words and actions of your elders are a massive part of whether I feel safe in church. 

    I have so much gratitude and respect for the godly men who walked with me during the darkest hours of my life. Their support was a large part of the reason that I found the courage in the end to walk away finally from a situation that was unbearable. If they had not been very clearly able to explain to me that my decision to walk away wasn’t, in fact, unbiblical or the actions of an unbeliever (accusations that were hurled at me repeatedly from the one who abused me), I would have put myself back in that situation. They were able to provide clarity when I had none, and point me to a solid place to stand when all around me was crumbling. For this, and much else, I thank them.  

To you who have taken the time to read this, I thank you, too. I hope you found something of use.   

God bless you,   

Your sister in Christ

The author of this article has asked that her name be withheld.

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domestic abuse
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