A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

What is the Abuse Victim’s Responsibility? —

The following comment was made by James at the article we posted as a critique of Lou Priolo’s booklet, Divorce.  You can read that post at Lou Priolo on Divorce.  I wanted to put James’ comment in its own post for better visibility because he makes a commonly believed statement about the abuse victim’s own responsibility.  I think it would be helpful for all of our readers to hear what he has to say and then provide him with some input.  I think that James is making his statements with good intent, so we should all respond to him in kind, even if we strongly disagree with what he says.  Here then is his comment, and we all await your ideas in response:

I know Lou Priolo personally, but I have not read his book so I can’t speak about it, now. However, I know the subject of abuse better than most. I was the object of child abuse and molestation as a child and that was at a time when there was no intervention or help. I know from the Study of the Scriptures and from experience that the abused person must be held responsible for his own actions, choices and behaviors. Without the principle of personal responsibility, there’s not much help or the hope of change in the abused one’s life. The question that I would be curious to know is did Lou at any time stress the intervention of the church? Were the elders called to intervene and to get the woman to a place of safety?

If James is thinking that, as Sandra Wilson puts it — Hurt People Hurt People — then yes, it is true that victims of abuse cannot hurt others by being abusive themselves and somehow excuse their actions because they were victimized.  Absolutely true.  And yet, in my opinion, there is something amiss in the way James puts this.  Should we deal with abuse victims in this manner?  I mean, by telling them that they are responsible for their own actions?  Does that mean they are responsible for the effects of PTSD?  Or for the sexual impairments they suffer from?  Is it really true that a woman, for example, who was abused by her first husband and then she goes on to a second relationship with still another abuser, is it really true that she is totally responsible for her own actions?  It seems to me that James is missing the point that abuse has actual, real, long-lasting effects that really are not the victim’s fault.  No, this doesn’t justify a victim in abusing someone else.  But can we say that she is totally responsible?  And even more, what damage would we be doing to her if we tell her “you are responsible for your own actions, choices and behaviors”?  Isn’t there a more accurate and kinder way to help such people?

As to James’ last two questions, I don’t recall that Priolo did stress church intervention.  I would have to go  back and re-read his booklet to be sure.  But I do remember that he told both husband and wife in any marriage that they are both sinners and both need to take responsibility for their marriage problems.  Which, in the case of abuse, is just absolutely wrong.

10 Comments

  1. I agree with your critique of James’s wording, Jeff. And like you, I think that James was writing with the best of intentions, and did not mean to blame victims.

    I think James may be trying to talk about the long-term responses the victim may make to having been abused, such as going into denial, blocking and numbing, psychological defenses against pain and shame, avoidant behavior, substance abuse, gambling addictions, acting out in anti-social ways, etc. If that is what James is referring to, then I agree with James’s statement that “… the abused person must be held responsible for his own actions, choices and behaviors. Without the principle of personal responsibility, there’s not much help or the hope of change in the abused one’s life.”

    But the trouble with James’s wording is that as soon as he says ‘the abused person must be held responsible for his own actions, choices and behaviors” he runs the risk of sounding like an abuser who shifts all the blame to his victim. This can be very triggering for victims. And it discounts the limited freedom of choice that the victim had while living in the abuse.

    When I was living with my abusive husband, my freedom of choice was limited by his pattern of coercive controlling behavior. He had ample choices; my choices were truncated. For example, I could choose whether to object to his swearing, or to ignore it, but I could not choose to stop it, as he chose to continue to swear despite my remonstrations. I could not often choose to walk away from the house to escape from his swearing so I didn’t have to listen to it, because I had household and childcare responsibilities that meant I had to stay in the house.

    That’s a simple example. Now here’s a more complex one. When I was sexually abused as a child, I blocked out the abuse from my memory. I did not consciously ‘choose’ to block out the memory; the blocking (amnesia) just happened. Maybe that’s a way the psyche works, especially in childhood when there has been terrifying fear. I developed an eating disorder and then a substance abuse problem, and never knew that any of my behavior was connected with the suppressed memory of sexual abuse until the memory came back in my early 20s.
    Now, I could only overcome those addictions by taking responsibility for my addictive behavior and the avoidant patterns of thinking that I’d habituated in myself. But I was not responsible for blocking out or suppressing the memory of the sexual abuse. The amnesia ‘just happened’. It was quite outside the realm of personal choice for me. So in that respect, James’s phraseology about a victim being ‘held responsible for [her] own actions, choices and behaviors’ would not be appropriate.

    Now, once the memory of the sexual abuse came back, I had more choices, and therefore more responsibility. As well as taking responsibility for and working on my addictive behaviours, I could choose to seek therapy and recovery for the sexual abuse. If I had not chosen to get counseling for the sexual abuse, not gone to survivor support groups, not read books about sexual abuse, not taken it in prayer to God and wrestled with it in the scriptures once I started walking as a Christian –– if I had shied away from it all, I would probably have been continued to engage in behaviors that were damaging to myself or to others, or, at the very least, I would have remained a burden on society, a crippled Christian who was largely ineffective for kingdom work. And I would have been responsible for the messes I created thereby. And if that had been the case, James’s phraseology about personal responsibility would have been more appropriate.

  2. Mama Martin

    Yes, in some ways victims are responsible for their choices, but while a victim is in an abusive situation, often the only choice a victim can make is between ‘bad’ and ‘worse’. The choices of a victim are very, very limited and at times when there appears to be a choice, in reality there may not be any option for the victim. The abuser is in control because of manipulation and the victim is a victim because they are powerless – not because of their weaknesses or bad choices but because the abuser has chosen to abuse. Choices that people in healthy relationships have are not available to victims – and it often is not obvious to an observer that the victim cannot choose as the person in a healthy relationship will choose because of consequences the victim will suffer from the abuser. I well remember our pastor counselling my husband and me that I needed to ‘open up’ and ‘share more’. He stated that of course I should share my opinion since my husband needed to know what I was thinking – and did not believe me when I said that it was not safe for me to trust my husband. Until a victim is safe from abuse, he or she cannot begin to heal. Until there is healing, the choices available to most are not, not, not available to victims.

    • Jeff Crippen

      MM – Very good observations! Thank you much for these insights you have learned.

    • Well said, M M. When you make any communication to an abuser, the abuser can re-shape it into a bullet or an arrow to fire back at you, or re-fashion it into a trap that will ensnare your feet or make you stumble into a pit. That’s the nature of abuse. And most pastors don’t get it. Being blind to the evil of evil, they think communication is always the honest exchange of opinions and feelings between equals. They don’t realize that communicating with an abuser is like communicating with the serpent in the Garden.

      • Jeff

        This idea of communicating with an abuser being impossible really hits home for me. I distinctly remember being signed up for an intense “save your marriage” weekend retreat and having to face the question on whether I was willing to change even if my spouse was not. I remember that question scaring me to the depths of my soul (if you did not answer in the affirmative, I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t take you) because the whole idea that the marriage could be healthy without her changing made me want to vomit. What change could I make that would cause the marriage to work? What change can a drowning person make other than to just inhale the water in and accept his/her fate?

      • Yes, any marriage program for couples pre-supposes that ‘it takes two to tango’ – i.e. both parties are contributing to the problem. But with abuse, the problem is the abuser. Period. Nothing will be solved until the abuser chooses to stop being abusive.

    • Anonymous

      Well said, Mama Martin!

      When I was still in abusive situation, I read many books by popular and highly-reputed authors, and constantly got that message that everybody has choices. I absorbed everything I could and always tried to apply the principles rigorously and found myself exposed to more abuse and couldn’t understand why nothing worked. I still like those authors and their books, although I now know not to recommend them to those who are being abused.

      The counsel from your pastor to ‘open up’ is exactly what I received. Being submissive, that is just what I did, to my detriment.

  3. Jeff

    I wanted to say that this ALMOST sounds like something my (secular) therapist said in a lecture at a mental institution, but the difference is critical. He said an abused victim “must take responsibility or he/she will never heal”, and this absolutely shocked the room (who normally had been getting a healthy diet of 12 step “you can’t fix it” doctrine). However, his meaning wasn’t that they were responsible for the effects, but that the only way to heal was to choose to take ownership over the abuse and deal with it. He said that’s really hard to hear, but many people never heal because they are waiting for their abuser to step up and make things right, and that’s simply never going to happen.

    I really saw this play out in my interactions at the institution- it seemed a large number of people never took responsibility for the healing process (including my now ex wife, which was the reason I was there visiting) and so they lived forever encumbered by their abuse. It was this speech that got me into see this therapist and he helped me a lot (I had it with Christian therapists who just had no idea how to handle an emotionally abandoned and abused man)- it turns out he used to work with physical abusers, so he knows quite a bit about this area- and his therapy was true to that. He never let me focus on my ex wife’s actions for very long- instead he focused in my wounds and how to work through to a healthier place. He was a real God-send to me, as my church’s response was to “stay the course and endure suffering for the sake of the gospel”.

    I feel sorry for the many people who for whatever reason don’t take the responsibility for healing (my ex wife among them). It was not their fault they were abused the way they were, and it’s sad they have that burden many others don’t. My ex wife hurt me in ways I never dreamed possible, but I can’t be angry- in the end, I don’t know how I would have been if I’d gone through what she did to get where she was. What I do know is that by the grace of God I was able to take responsibility for addressing the abuse she had toward me and move on, and she’s still stuck in that place hurting everyone who tries to love her. Maybe one day she’ll figure it out- I pray for her sake and the sake of my son she does.

    • Thanks so much for your insightful and wise comment, Jeff.

  4. Finding Answers

    There were some choices I couldn’t make in response to abusive relationships because I had no awareness the relationships were abusive.

    Unknowingly, I lived with dissociative amnesia. Not complete amnesia, but fragmenting some of the associated emotions. There were many, many memory fragments.

    Once the light bulbs lit, I could take responsibility for pursuing a healing path.

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