Equity rescuing, and how it pertains to Phase Two of an abusive relationship

Megan’s post Stunned Again described three phases of an abusive relationship. I was going to add a lengthy comment on that post about something that can play out in Phase Two, but I’ve decided to make it a new post instead.

To refresh your memory, here is what Megan wrote about Phase Two:

Phase 2: I began to learn how to cope. I knew that divorce was not an option. My parents and church had been very clear about this. I believed God hated divorce (and, in turn, would hate me if I wanted out). I learned to tiptoe around things. I learned to thrive outside of his realm. At night . . . while he was at work, I got a Masters’ degree. It took 6 years. I found ways to still play the piano, even though he was terribly threatened by my gifts. I convinced myself that things would be OK. I turned a blind eye to the twisted-ness. I scampered behind him when he “disciplined” the children . . . re-directing them . . . re-teaching them . . . loving on them. All the women in his family did this. It became my normal. I no longer thought I deserved better, anyway. I had heard the lies so many times. Here is the point: my mind became re-wired.  This life I led had become my normal. I had re-wired myself out of pure self-preservation. I was no longer shocked. Here was my self-talk for most of my marriage: ”Oh, I can deal with this. I know how to placate him. I am reading the signs and I need to walk softly. It’s not so bad. That is how his father is . . . . This is how all men are.” It was a slow fade; a slow death. Light bruising turned to dark bruising. We were the frogs slowly boiling in the water yet never noticing.

And here is a comment that Barnabas in Training added:

You had to find some way of normalizing the abnormal since you did not realize you had any other choice.

Finding some way to normalize the abnormal. Let’s explore this concept a little more. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse [Affiliate link added May 7, 2021. Editors.], David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen describe how victims modify their thinking to find ways to normalize the abnormal. Here is my understanding of what these two authors teach on pp 186-7 of that book (and thanks to the reader who pointed me to it):

Let’s assume that a person grew up in a relatively healthy family without abuse, but married someone who turned out to be abusive. We all know the frog in the pot analogy of how the abuse starts  small and doesn’t seem significant, and how it can increase so gradually that each increase doesn’t seem significant either. But there comes a point where the victim is realizing “this is NOT okay”.  One of the things that then becomes an impediment to the victim leaving is what’s known as “Equity Rescuing”.

Equity rescuing works like this. You buy a house (or a car) and it turns out to be a lemon. It needs repairs and remodeling, and then more, and yet more again, and each time you invest money to make the house more liveable (or keep the car on the road) you are investing equity in it. But that lemon just keeps needing more things done to it. And you’re thinking, “I’ve sunk this much money into it already; if I sell the house now, all my money will have been wasted; so I’ll do one more repair and see if it works okay then.” So you invest more. And you end up throwing money at it just to rescue the equity you’ve already invested.

Abusive relationships can be like that. We have invested so much, we don’t want to ‘waste’ everything we’ve invested. So we keep throwing more at it; we keep trying to fix the problem, we give the abuser ‘one more chance’. And we make an adjustment each time, a tolerance, an allowance, and each adjustment is further away from normal.

We don’t compare the most recent episode of abuse with normal behavior, we compare it with the abuse tactic he used on me a few weeks ago – which is already several increments away from normal, if not scores of increments away.

We often hear survivors say “I don’t know what normal is anymore.” Many times a survivor has described to me what her spouse (or her pastor) has been doing to her and I’ve told her “That’s not normal behavior,” and the relief the survivor feels is immeasurable: the lights come on and start staying on.  I vividly remember my own tearful telephone call to a suicide line the night my first husband had yelled at me and thrown the remote control at our piano. The phone counselor listed to my account and my description of the history of my husband’s abuse over the years, and then she said “That’s not normal behavior.”   Wow! Really?   And I had had two protection orders against him by that stage, and been to one domestic violence support group, and fought and won custody in the family court, so I was not a newbie.

In my first marriage, I spent a lot of time thinking about equity rescuing, running the ‘balance sheet’ through my head and coming to the conclusion that I’d invested too much to walk out now. We’d got pregnant. We’d got married before friends and family, and how embarrassing it would be to have to tell them, “I made a mistake.” Then we’d had the baby. Then we’d bought a block of land. Then we’d  struggled to agree on the house plan for about 18 months. But finally we agreed on a plan and had the house built – BIG equity investment there. Then I got a job locally, near the house that we’d built. So many components of life were a good fit, outwardly. Then our daughter was growing older and I thought she’d be so upset if mummy and daddy split up – she would certainly not be as oblivious to a marriage split-up as she would have been in infancy (or so I thought). How could I pull the plug on her growing up in a two parent family? She had developed friends locally, and found a lovely substitute Grandma and Grandpa just over the back fence, whom she adored… And my husband would never leave, so I’d have to leave if it was going to end, and that would mean …. what? too hard basket.

14 thoughts on “Equity rescuing, and how it pertains to Phase Two of an abusive relationship”

  1. I remember telling my Christian therapist about some of the things my husband did, asking my counselor if “this was normal” and to my relief, he said it was not normal. I have lived with my husband for so long, I forgot what normal was! I have been so isolated that down feels like up!
    And about equity rescuing, I’ve been married for 27 years, 3 kids and now I work for my husband, who also emotionally abuses me at work. My life is perfect, except for him. I’ve struggled for years not knowing what to do. My parents have passed away and I have no relatives in this area. My husband is very controlling of our finances and my youngest child has special needs so I’m just trying to get him through high school before I do anything drastic. In Dr. Jill Murray’s book, But He Never Hit Me, she says most people prefer the certainty of misery versus the misery of uncertainty. That’s where I am at right now.
    Thank you so much for your blog! I’ve gone to my church asking for help, only to be told I am the one who needs to change. So I went to another church where they have been much more comforting and helpful but they still don’t “get” what is really going on. At least they are more supportive of me but Jeff Crippen is so right when he says the church should be at the forefront of helping abused wives and families!

    1. Sherry — you are going through so much. I remember this feeling of preferring the false security of the “known” over the fear of the “unknown”. It was like being caught between the bad and the bad. It is so hard to find hope in the midst of these struggles. I pray that you can find a place where your voice is clearly heard. The church is not always doing its job in supporting victims and helping them to get out. Sending hugs your way and much much support from my heart.

    2. Sherry, my heart goes out to you. It is a really tough place to be. While you stay with him (and I understand all those reasons for staying) you might find some comfort and support from reading these two things. One is an piece called Honoring Resistance: How Women Resist Abuse in Intimate Relationships [Internet Archive link]. Click on the link and you’ll see it listed under the publications. The other is my article called Why Didn’t You Leave?
      I hope you continue to find help here at our blog, and don’t hesitate to email Megan, Jeff or myself if you ever wish to.

      [The Why Didn’t You Leave link was corrected to reflect the new URL. Editors.]

  2. I had heard too long that “God hates divorce” and the sexual abuse wasn’t as obvious…like what you hear about on TV shows. I didn’t think I had any options. I thought I had to stay and so it became normal to me. One therapist I went to I would try to describe things that had happened or where happening and all she asked was how I “felt ” about it. I would ask her if this was normal or abusive. She would never say. Needless to say I stopped going to her.

    1. IMO, therapists who say nothing except “how do you feel about that?” have not learned how to counsel victims of domestic abuse. That style of therapy will probably only make the victim of abuse feel more guilty – the victim will think “I must be crazy for feeling what I’m feeling!”

      We (victims/survivors) need someone who is not only interested in our feelings, but someone who can tell us what is normal and what is abnormal. We need that moral reality check from outside, from someone who can tell us “That person is abusing you and it’s not your fault; you are not to blame.”
      Christians, in addition, need very specific guidance and teaching to expose and correct the false doctrines they have been taught about marriage, forgiveness, divorce, etc.

      1. Yes! Yes, Barbara! We need examples even….”This is what a godly loving response looks like….compare this to what he did”, etc. Clear-cut guidance.

      2. Yes, I’m glad you mentioned that, Megan. Examples of what godly responses should look like from both a spouse AND a church leader / Christian bystander.
        I’m a great believer in teaching truth two ways:
        … you’re teaching on Forgiveness, say.
        1. You teach what forgiveness IS
        2. You teach what forgiveness IS NOT.

        Paul used this double-barreled teaching technique a lot. Here is truth; here is error. Pay attention brothers and sisters so you can discern the differences with sharp eyes and alert hearts.

      3. So true, Barbara. Thank you. The “what is normal, what is not normal is a good thing to look for when looking for a therapist, etc.

  3. I remember being in the place of “I’ve made everything up” and “the unknown is worst than the known, at least I know what to expect”. I haven’t been out that long, and while I still have bad days, they are a lot better than having a bad day because of the way my husband spoke to me/looked at me/treated me. My Christian therapist took her time with me, and finally told me I needed to call the domestic abuse hotline. It took me weeks to call, because that was for really abused women, not for me! And then she asked me, “is do not divorce in the 10 commandments?” (no) but lying is, and I was lying to myself, to my family and friends, to everyone to stay married. That conversation as well as this blog (thank you thank you thank you) have helped me so much on this journey!

    1. That lying certainly drains our children as well…In my situation, some of the men from my church who began to see the truth asked to interview me and my 2 oldest. When our meeting was over, we prayed as they prepared to go to my pastor with this information and defend me. As we prayed my daughter began to sob huge, heaving sobs. I asked her later what was happening in her heart during that time. Her response was that it “felt so good to know that someone heard us and was finally believing the truth about our situation”. Obviously, she had been carrying the burden of our 2 different lives for a long time. I had not realized how heavy that burden had been for her. So sad.

      The freedom of walking in the truth, regardless of the fallout, had a price. However, it placed us all squarely in the hands of a loving and capable God who took care of everything as we put our lives in His hands. Fear decreased, and courage and faith came in. God makes a wonderful husband and father! 🙂

      1. Yes, Anon, those heaving sobs that happen when we are finally believed – I know them well.
        At last some of the pain can come out. Truth. Cleansing of the inward parts. The blessed healing power of tears.

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