If a friend or member of your congregation tells you of the abusive relationship she is enduring, one of the most validating things you can do is to believe her. The validation of being believed empowers the victim and may help her to understand even more clearly the abusive relationship she is in — especially if the abuser tries to convince her he has changed.
However, as a supporter it is important to understand that you are at risk of being recruited by the abuser — to become his ally. If the abuser knows you, and especially if he has an inkling that you are supporting his victim, the abuser will see your support of his target as a great danger to him. Why? Because the abuser knows that it is easier for him to maintain power and control over his target if the target is isolated and bereft of people she can trust and confide in. He sees your friendship with his target as a potential lifeline for her (which it is), and he doesn’t want her to have any lifelines: he wants to keep her stuck, bound and numbed on his spider web.
The abuser will want to stop you from supporting his wife and he will use various tactics to try to achieve this. One of the skills of being a support person for victims of domestic abuse is to be able to recognise and resist the tactics that the abuser uses to try to recruit you as his ally. Even if he cannot win you over to be his full ally, he will be content to get you to adopt a ‘neutral’ stance. It’s important for you to understand that in domestic abuse, neutrality is NOT neutral.
Another of the abusers’s tactics is that he will try to convince you that he is changing/has changed. Here is what we know from much long experience and from the accounts of many survivors, as well as from professionals like George Simon and others who work in the field of domestic abuse:
- For an abuser to truly change takes a LOT of work on his part and it is a very long process that needs to continue for the rest of his life.
- An abuser cannot change unless he deals deeply with his entitled and superior attitudes. No superficial changes that he may make offer any real hope for the future.
- It makes no difference how NICE he is being, since almost all abusers have nice periods. What matters is how RESPECTFUL and NONCOERCIVE he chooses to become.
- Shallow and phony repentance is the abuser’s stock in trade. It is part of his manipulative arsenal.
Thank you for validating your friend! Your support is going to be a lifeline for your friend. So may I suggest that to be the most effective supporter possible, please educate yourself on how to recognize and resist the abuser’s effort to recruit you as his ally.
We have a number of resources to help on our resources page for Supporters of Victims of Domestic Abuse.
You may also find these posts helpful
How to Recognize True (and false) Contrition — by Dr. George Simon, Jr.
The language of abusers who portray themselves as victims — Pt 1: Vagueness & Contraditions [apols from Barb: I have not written any more parts to that series 😦 ]
How a Pastor and His Wife’s Eyes Were Opened to Abuse
There is No Neutrality, No “Innocent” Bystander When We See Abuse
The Levite’s Concubine — a case study in domestic abuse and how abusers enlist allies
Abuse and Anger: Is it a Sin to Be Angry Toward Our Abuser?
Love covers a multitude of sins, but not all.
A Review of “BIFF: Quick Responses to High Conflict People” by Bill Eddy
25 thoughts on “Helping an Abuse Victim without being Duped by the Abuser”
For me, one of the most difficult challenges has been trying to figure out how best to be supportive of a victim who has chosen to reconcile with her abuser. One current situation is with a friend who is in an abusive marriage. She knows we firmly support her…that we know she is in an abusive marriage…that we stand against abuse and in favor of divorce from an abusive marriage…that I have testified for her in court, previously, and will do so again as needed…that we don’t buy her husband’s ‘repentance’…
Of course, we also respect her right to make her own decisions. We in no way begrudge her choice to reconcile with her husband. I completely understand the difficulty of leaving an abusive marriage…and have made similar choices in similar situations, myself.
Her husband also knows where I stand and, therefore, has a good deal of animosity toward both me and my wife. Which means we’re not around them much, other than occassionally seeing them at local sporting events.
All in all, I feel confident we have helped where we could while also respecting her decisions about her own life.
But…it still feels odd to sort of back off…to let the friendship grow distant while knowing our friend has already begun to become isolated from her best allies.
Any suggestions on how to better handle such a situation?
Joe it sounds to me like you’re handling it really well!
Yes, it feels odd to sort of back off. And yes, the abused person does become more isolated for a time. The key (and I think you know this already) is to do what you can, often only possible in a few words or tone of voice or a smile, to show the abused person that you will support her whatever she chooses, and you are willing to adapt and re-adapt the level/quality of your relationship with her according to how she chooses to participate (or not participate) in it.
By conveying to the abused that you are non-judgemental towards her, she will be more likely to remember your support and come back for more of it when she wishes to do so. And in the meantime you can convey in little ways that you care about her, and are concerned for her. If you convey your concern for her with furrowed brows, she is likely to interpret that as disapproval of her (even though you actually mean it only to show that you are seriously concerned for her safety). So conveying your goodwill with benign but non-imposing warmth, will be most likely to convey to her that you are still her friend and supporter.
And doing that under the radar of the abuser — well, it’s quite an art! In my experience of this, it happens by relying on the promptings of the Holy Spirit on a moment by moment basis. . . and we do not always get it right, so we need to be gentle on ourselve too. 🙂
Thank you, Barbara, for the encouragement and feedback.
Yes, we still have a warm relationship when we cross paths (except when the abuser is present). We just have fewer opportunities.
Joe, your decision to stand by and not remove yourself due to frustration is what I wish more people would be willing to do.
The method used in counseling is to facilitate the person to come to their own revelations to an extent. The goal is long term change and when a person has a lightbulb moment for themselves it is more likely to yield lasting change. If you know the specific hooks that he uses to keep her in the abuse perhaps you could speak to those- asking her questions to get her to come to her own conclusions. People make change when the pain of their current circumstance outweighs the pain of change. It would seem that in her mind the pain of change is greater so perhaps the source of this could be drawn out.
You used an interesting term- reconcile. As we all know it isn’t possible to reconcile with an abuser. There is no relationship to be reconciled with. There remains enmity no matter what the target does. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean that literally and rather as an expression but perhaps this might be a place to start. That she see she truly has not reconciled but rather agreed to tolerate.
After realizing the extent to which my stbx slandered me with friends, I also consider what kinds of things he might be doing to discredit you and your wife to discourage loyalty or security with you both.
As Barbara said, it is worth so much that she knows she can come to you both for support should she be ready to make changes. I trust that earnest prayer will help the Spirit lead you in what to say and when to say it. Perhaps a prayer for her eyes and mind to be opened to the truth as well.
Thank you, Valerie! Very good input!
One of the things that has made a huge difference for us is having people who care about us enough to check on us occasionally. Even if your friend does stay with her abuser, it would probably be a godsend if you periodically called / messaged / emailed her and asked how she felt. Make it clear that you (or your wife) are safe people she can vent to, without fearing that it will get back to her husband. Don’t wait for her to contact you.
Having someone on the outside willing to reach in helps maintain a sense of proportion, and helps with feelings of powerlessness. Just knowing that someone is there who would pull you out if you let them is worth more than rubies.
Thank you, HT!
Good point on initiating contact. We have a warm relationship when our paths cross, but we might could find ways to initiate contact more frequently.
Barbara — I love this and will share it. Thank you for writing it. I included “Believe Her” in my book and there are several chapters that fit right in with all that you wrote above. I wish people realized how painful and betray-ful it is for them to stand silent in the face of abuse or to be sucked in by an abuser. For me, that was the worst part about leaving my ex. Of course, I wasn’t bothered by my ex’s rejection and hatefulness. But, I wasn’t prepared for my family and friend and church not believing me.
UPDATE Sept 2021: I have come to believe that Jeff Crippen does not practise what he preaches. He vilely persecuted an abuse victim and spiritually abused many other people in the Tillamook congregation. Go here to read the evidence. Jeff has not gone to the people that he spiritually and emotionally abused. He has not apologised to them, let alone asked for their forgiveness.
‘betray-ful’ — I love that word you’ve coined, Meg!
Readers, you might like to know that Jeff Crippen wrote the preface (or a commendation?) for Megan’s book.
Hi Joe this happened to me the 1st time I left my husband- and I was the one “letting my friends / supporters down” by going back to my husb when I knew they didn’t think he’d changed etc. It was a great grief to me that they backed right off, it felt like they could hardly speak to me and were very estranged. However I desperately needed them to talk with me and to be close but the air was ‘charged’ with awkwardness and -I felt- ‘disapproval’. So I guess I would say, be as close as you can be even whilst letting her have the freedom to choose in a different direction.. and don’t let the fact she went back be the ‘elephant in the room’ that cant be talked about. I would have loved to talk with my friend about why I went back and have access to ongoing close conversations but they shut it down. They probably thought it was disrespectting my decision if they kept close, and it also felt a lot like grief when someone has a loss and others ‘stay away’ because they don’t know what to say.
If (as is likely) things start sliding back to an abusive cycle- she will be helped by you being in her life still. It took me 7 years to reach a point of breaking free again (currently separated) and on reflection I lacked knowledge of abuse and its cycles and also was ‘borrowing from my friend’s strength’ too much in order to keep resisting the first time.. this time I have more knowledge of abuse and have more strength to make my own stand even tho I still need the support and insight of others along the way… hope this helps..
Having some one available for support “in the wings” is of great comfort to a person who is hoping her abuser will change, but isnt quite ready to accept that he wont.
I stayed in the fog sooo long because my abuser scared off all of my support and had a legion of allies planted on every side of me to keep me under his spell.
He also controlled the very circumstances that surrounded me, keeping me feeling like there was no hope.
And towards the end one of my family members understood that I was being manipulated and mistreated, but she did not always have the patience to stick with me during my indecisive stages.
I felt trapped in a lifestyle with my kids, and didnt know how to get out, and durring those times I felt very isolated when she was not available to listen to me.
But I found another friend from church that understood abuse from her personal experience, and just having her there for me to call and talk to when I needed, has been a very good thing.
So just being there and letting someone know that you are there to support them and to call anytime to talk or text, is going to seem like a lifeline to them.
SavedbyGrace, What a wealth of food for thought in your comment!
You’ve conveyed in such detail how you felt and how it affected you when your supporters seemed to back off and the ‘why did you go back?’ conversation became out of bounds.
Thank you, SavedByGrace! This is very helpful.
She has lost support from a few friends, but certainly not all. My wife and I have made a point of letting her know, “We support YOU. We’re hear to help you and your kids in whatever way we can. We’re not here to tell you what you should do or to try to make your decisions for you. We don’t want to be intrusive. We do want you to know we’re here for you.”
Overall, the relationship has remained warm and friendly…except when her husband is around which isn’t often because he makes a point of avoiding us. We just have fewer opportunities to interact and almost no opportunities for in-depth conversation.
This is such a vital post Barbara! My abusive H moved heaven and earth to recruit anyone and everyone he knew or perceived was bringing me some kind of support. These people were shocked to have him land on their doorstep or receive mail from him to prove me wrong and show them how he cared for his wife and wanted us back together.
I had to “go underground” and have ‘secret’ counselors and allies. Some time ago when one was tracked down by my H and adopted the neutral stance, I had to let go of that unreliable support in order to short-circuit H’s offensive and minimize the impact on the support and myself. This has happened with other people. He won’t give up. It feels like being in an ‘impossible mission’ (not for God!), watching on all fronts at all time and discern who is ‘ally, spy or standing by’ … sigh!
Wow Innoscent, I just read this and can concur.
Once I had implemented firm boundries in place against my abuser, he became determined to “try to” hoodwink me back under his control, and one of his strategies was to try to contact all the male spouses of my personal friends, to see what possible sabotaging information he could gleen from them, “under the guise of being a concerned husband for his so called mentally ailing wife.”
However I gave my friends the heads up, that he would surely be trying this, and to tell their husbands not to even take his calls.
In the end my abuser managed to call one of my very own family members, convincing her that the only way that my situation would ever improve, is if she helped him by informing him of my plans.
I could tell when talking to her that the questions she was asking me were more posed for getting information from me than for true concern.
Needless to say this person is no longer on my contact list.
Really related to Harlequin Tabby’s comment: Having someone on the outside willing to reach in helps maintain a sense of proportion, and helps with feelings of powerlessness. Just knowing that someone is there who would pull you out if you let them is worth more than rubies.
While I decided to go back to my abusive husband (a heart wrenchingly hard decision) some up-till-then helpful friends gave up out of frustration and broke contact; I understand their frustration, but still it cut deep. I was blessed to have three people who believed me, and validated my decisions -not by agreeing with me!-but by walking that hard place alongside me and ultimately out the other side. Yes they are more valuable to me than rubies… Keep up your awesome lifeline JoePote01
Thank you, so much, SeeClearerNow! Very encouraging! 🙂
I can understand why friends leave after the victim returns to the abuser, but this is a good reminder for me not to do the same. I helped someone move out in the middle of the night and spent hours listening to her and 3 weeks later she was back with him so it felt like all my love and compassion and energy were thrown in the trash. Perhaps others feel that too. But eventually I realized that I should maintain compassion without trying to be the hero. I should keep in touch and be truthful, but leave her decisions in God’s hands. She wants to believe that his repentance is genuine and I fear what would happen if it’s not. In reality, neither of us know until more time has passed so I can wait and watch with her as a friend because I know that her reason for returning to him was not anything against me. We can watch together to see what kind of fruit comes out of him. It’s aggravating not to know what will happen, but it reminds me that giving her freedom to choose is showing her the opposite of abuse.
Also, when I hear that most abusers’ repentance is fake I think that’s true but I’d like to add something. In the parable of the sower, there are 4 soils. The seed on the path never sprouted, so if that person acts repentant they are really faking it. The seed in the rocky soil and in the weed soil had a GENUINE sprout that later died. If these people repent and then backslide we could think that they were faking it, but they really were genuine for a short time. That affects what we assume about their motives, but it doesn’t change that a back-slidden abuser isn’t safe to live with.
Probably, a woman who believes that his repentance is genuine won’t listen to people who say “he’s faking it”, but she might understand if you say, “watch to see evidence of what kind of soil he is. Watch for evidence of rocks and weeds.” I’m also guessing that she’ll ignore that advice during the “honeymoon period”, but she might remember it later on and be glad that you told her later.
I think it’s easy to fall into that sort of thinking, because, by nature, addressing abuse requires us to choose sides and take a firm stand…often against substantial opposition and in the midst of much emotional turmoil.
However, as you have pointed out, we must always keep in mind that the abuse target is usually struggling to find the best path…trying to make right choices in the midst of much confusion and many conflicting opinions.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, M&M!
another thing. . . many victims go back because they don’t have much support from people who ‘get it’ when they leave, and the self-doubts and second-guessing comes over them ‘Was it really that bad?” once they’ve been out for a while and started to feel a few notches less of anxiety and fear. . .
Blogs like this one, I believe, or survivor support groups in the local community, can make a real difference, maybe even a significant enough difference to enable the survivor to see and break through the fog when it creeps or sweeps back in again. . .
btw, M&M, nothing I said there was meant to cast aspersions on the quality of your help for your friend! — Not at all! 🙂
Meant to add to my previous comment-Matthew 13 is the where the parable comes from.
Thanks, Barbara, I didn’t take it negatively, but I’m glad that you clarified just in case (I know that I have sometimes come across harsher than intended). In the case that I’m thinking of, I don’t think that pressure from others led her to return (though it’s good to be aware of). But I do know that emotions are complicated. She believes wholeheartedly that he’s changed while me and my other friends believe wholeheartedly that we just don’t know.
It wasn’t a total waste!! After a period of good behavior he relapsed and then she divorced him without pressure from me. During that time I learned to let her make decisions and I supported the divorce after she decided it. None of our friends have left her to side with the abuser but a few are disagreeing on whether the kick her ex to the curb or maintain a separate friendship. I try to avoid him but I’m not certain that I should tell anyone else what to do with him. One of her conservative family members found the “not under bondage” verse without my suggestion and supported her decision and at least one of several pastors supported it as well. It also showed me that I’m not the only one who cares.
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