Leslie Vernick – various responses that domestic abuse victims have to her work. (5th & final in series on SBC’s ChurchCares program)
Some victims of domestic abuse find Leslie Vernick’s work helpful; others find it confusing and even dangerous. To illustrate the range of responses that victims have to Leslie’s work, I will be quoting from their comments. Most of my quotes will be excerpts from victims’ comments and I will give links to their original comments so you can check to see whether or not I’m unfairly extracting their words. I cannot, of course, give links to comments that people made to me by email.
I will talk about the positives first, then the concerns which some survivors have about Leslie’s work.
Note: Leslie uses the female gender for the victim in her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. In this post I will be often be calling the victim ‘she‘. Reverse the genders if need be for your situation.
Many abused wives have not yet identified that they are being abused, so they might not feel comfortable with the ‘A’ word (abuse). Leslie talks about the differences between a ‘difficult marriage’ and a ‘destructive marriage’. In the early stages of coming to grips with what is being done to them, victims often find it easier to identify with the term ‘destructive marriage’ than the more scary word ‘abuse’.
Leslie is fairly well known in conservative Christian circles, so her work is often recommended to victims of domestic abuse. Leslie’s work can serve as a bridge from the conservative hidebound world into the advocacy & recovery community that I and many other readers of this blog inhabit.
[Leslie] is expert on affirmation and encouraging people to be the best they can be. She is aiming for a more general audience. – Mary Reid
Leslie provides affordable personal support to victims.
Leslie provided for me what no other resource provided for me at the time – affordable and ongoing personal support, not only through her video teachings and regular group phone calls, but also through an online support group. – Reconciled
In a guest post at Leslie’s blog, a woman called S recounted how, with the help of her counselor plus Leslie’s Conquer Program and individual coaching from Leslie, she:
learned to grieve my losses more quickly, and give up knee-jerk expressions of frustration such as whining, complaining and making excuses. God gradually transplanted my heart of fear and shame with a heart of courage. I became more patient and forgiving: first with God, myself, then others. I accepted being the mom of very confused kids and let go. I learned I’d unconsciously been a volunteer for abuse. I made choices to stop enabling it. Through grief work, I let go of resentment and grew more compassionate. I gained adaptive tools, unexpected resources and new strategies to overcome fear without reacting. I had to stop allowing other people and circumstances to define my values, identity and character. This involved assessing what I could and couldn’t change. I began to take time to listen to God, listen to my own heart, and walk in obedience to that ongoing heart ‘conversation.’ As I did, I came to believe that, in any situation I face, I will have a path in which I can walk in victory and peace. Most importantly, I understood that my identity depends on what God thinks of me, not what others think. – condensed from S’s story
CORE is an acronym Leslie has created. She coaches abused wives in how to develop their CORE strength. For those who don’t know, CORE stands for:
- Committed to truth and reality
- Open to growth, instruction and feedback
- Responsible for yourself, and Respecting others without dishonouring yourself
- Empathetic and compassionate toward others without Enabling destructive behaviour
Leslie’s CORE teaching has helped some victims clear the fog and start thinking their own thoughts, rather than the implanted thoughts that the abuser has brainwashed them with.
I believe Leslie teaches CORE for the purpose of helping women refocus their priorities back to living biblically … The abuser twists so much up resulting in one’s priorities getting lost in the mess and the brain gets muddied. CORE helps combat that. It helps empower the woman from the inside … building blocks. It’s a healthy responsible practice for living in general and also happens to focus on areas where those who’ve been caught up in an abusive relationship tend to be lacking or have been worn down.
– Wendy C
Do the four principles of CORE have some biblical basis? I believe they do; let me explain this in my own words:
C: I am called to believe the truth and face reality. Sometimes I want to flee from the truth. But Jesus says that the truth sets us free. If I’m being abused by someone, I may not want to recognise that I’m being abused because if I accept that reality it cascades into me having to face many tough decisions. What shall I do, now that I know I’m being abused? Truth and reality can be tough to face, but facing truth and reality does me good in the long run because it can set me on the path to freedom.
O: I need to be open to growth, instruction and feedback, so long as the instruction and feedback is wise counsel that balances the whole counsel of God’s Word.
R: I want to be responsible for myself and respectful towards others, without dishonouring myself.
E: I am called to be empathetic and compassionate towards others; but I’m not called to enable destructive behaviour.
Concerns that some victims have about Leslie Vernick’s work
If you have been helped by Leslie’s work, please be tolerant and try to understand the perspectives of other women who do not have glowing praise for Leslie’s work.
Leslie’s picture of the abuser, and her elasticity in terminology
Leslie tells the abused woman that her abuser is a broken man, a sinner, just like her. She says he is blind and overcome by darkness.
– email from a woman who is doing Leslie’s Conquer program
To say the abuser is a sinner just like the victim is what I call ‘sin levelling’. Sin levelling is dangerous and unbiblical.
And to say the abuser is blind, evacuates the intentionality of the abuse from the picture.
Let me share with you some wise words from William Tyndale:
It is therefore a sure and undoubted conclusion, whether we be holy or unholy, we are all sinners. But the difference is, that God’s sinners consent not to their sin. They consent unto the law that it is both holy and righteous and mourn to have their sins taken away. But the devil’s sinners consent unto their sin and would have the law and hell taken away and are enemies unto the righteousness of God.
– “The Obedience of a Christian Man,” William Tyndale, 1528. (p 163 in the Penguin edition published in 2000)
Leslie is unclear about what abusers are
Sometimes she calls them evil, yet most often she calls them fools (or destructive). She has a handout that explains George Simon’s material, but she says that abusers are hurting and deformed and need compassion, so she contradicts Simon’s material.
– email from a survivor who now helps women get free. (Look at footnote ¹ below if you want to explore George Simon’s material.)
I have been pondering this and I think it is crucial. Leslie’s elastic terminology makes her material palatable to readers from all sides of the spectrum. But her elasticity in terminology gives rise to much confusion.
In March 2018 Leslie emailed me expressing concern about what I’d said here about her CORE teaching. We exchanged several emails as a result. As part of that exchange I gave her feedback about what I thought were shortfalls in her approach, hoping she would take what I said on board to improve the way she writes about abusive / destructive marriages. In one of her replies to me, she said:
My book was not just about abusive marriages but also about destructive ones and I stand by what I wrote.
I had always had the impression Leslie equated ‘destructive marriages’ with ‘abusive marriages’. So when she indicated that she sees some kind of distinction between destructive marriages and abusive marriages, I was floored.
She also told me that she didn’t think there was much point in discussing our differences. So I am left wondering how and why Leslie differentiates between a ‘destructive marriage’ and an ‘abusive marriage’.
Women who identify as victims of abuse are forking out $27 a month for her Conquer Program and even more if they participate in her intensive programs and individual coaching. Surely they need to know that Leslie makes this distinction, so they can decide whether or not Leslie’s programs are for them?
Leslie’s advice to the victim
She tells women to be respectful so they will not become destructive and deformed like their spouses – this is fear mongering and encourages women to be afraid of themselves.
On the one hand she says that you can leave a ‘destructive marriage’ yet on the other hand she encourages women to stay well. She tells women to work on themselves to change the marriage but also says some abusers won’t change (and we know that it’s more like NO abusers will change) but she gives them false hope that the marriage can change if the woman changes.
For women already living with cognitive dissonance, I think Leslie’s teaching is an absolute landmine of gray areas, false hopes and confusion. Women need clarity and truth, like your blog gives. The Word is a sword and should bring clarity, like your writing does, and Leslie’s writing brings utter confusion.
– email from a survivor who now helps women get free.
Leslie urges the victim to work on herself to develop her character and become more godly by developing the attitudes and skills of CORE. I believe that in giving that advice, Leslie is insufficiently taking into account the context and dynamics of intimate partner abuse. The abuser is already systematically disassembling the victim by saying / covertly implying that she ought to work on herself to change her attitudes and behaviours.
Leslie’s exhortations to victims to ‘work on themselves’ all too easily come over as echoes and replications of the denigrating, mind-controlling injunctions that abusers and churches have given to victims. The emphasis Leslie puts on the victim to get her own act together by developing her CORE can all too easily counteract the non-blaming messages which Leslie gives to the victim.
I understand that Leslie Vernick is trained as a Biblical Counselor. Biblical Counseling has at least some of its roots in Nouthetic Counseling which was developed by Jay Adams. Nouthetic Counseling tended to focus on the sins of the client: the defects and shortfalls of the person seeking counseling. In my view, Leslie has unfortunately brought rather too much of this ‘defect’ focus into to her work with victims of domestic abuse.
Let me again give the graphic² I have been using in this series of posts:
The abuser has been dishonouring the victim countless times. The victim has had to mentally fight to resist those dishonouring messages. Leslie’s CORE advice all too easily dishonours the victim by pointing out the victim’s shortfalls.
As the graphic suggests, one way we can help the victim is to elucidate (shed light on) her responses to the abuse, and honour all the ways she has determinedly and prudently resisted the abuse. When we do that, the victim is encouraged. Her dignity, self-respect and personhood – which she has been valiantly trying to uphold against the abuser’s demeaning – are seen, acknowledged and honoured.
Each individual victim experiences a unique combination of opportunities and dangers. When her responses and resistance to the abuse are elucidated and honoured, she feels affirmed and respected. With that kind of affirmation, it is far easier for the victim to disentangle the many false teachings she had heard from the church, and replace them with true biblical principles / doctrines. With that kind of affirmation, she can much more easily begin to think through what she might want to do and say (or not say) to enhance her and her children’s safety and future well-being in her particular circumstances.
But Leslie does not give enough of that kind of affirmation and support. She gives crumbs of affirmation to victims; but right on the heels of those affirmations she says things that make the victim feel there is something wrong with her.
Don Hennessy is a relationships counselor who has met with at least 1500 men who have abused their female partners and worked closely with at least 1000 of those men (link). He says:
The main reason why any woman becomes trapped in an abusive relationship is because a skilled offender decided to target her. When we look for any explanation for the continuing abuse by analysing the character or the behaviour of the sufferer we not only further abuse the woman but also begin the process of colluding with the abuser.
This collusion is the lifeblood of the skilled offender. He has drawn us over to his worldview. In a very subtle, covert and powerful way he has targeted us all. We have all be targeted without even knowing it. We are all subjected to the same tactics as the target woman and sadly we are all capable of colluding with the abuser.
We must stop the practice of examining the target woman’s behaviour. Instead we might try to examine and reveal the accurate, effective and intentional processes used by the skilled offender. These tactics when used in the context of an intimate relationship can clearly be described as a kind of brainwashing.
All the psychephiles that I have met have the skill to surreptitiously carry out this brainwashing while pretending to be in love.
– click here for the page numbers where Don Hennessy said these things.
– click here for more info about Don Hennessy.
Leslie repeatedly warns victims to not take vengeance into their own hands. To not be angry, selfish, or bitter. She urges them to doubt their own thinking and second guess their own instincts. Leslie implies that the victim’s fear, terror, worry, anxiety, self-doubt and feelings of hopelessness are wrong. She tells them that it’s wrong to feel hate for their abusers. She tells victims that they need to learn how to stop feeling those things by changing their thinking.
It is obvious to me that a lot of Leslie’s teaching is simplistic cognitive behaviour therapy made to sound like Christian wisdom.
She sprinkles in a few cherry-picked scriptures, but quite often she applies them in an unbalanced way. For examples of how to balance scriptures that are often used on victims, go to footnote ³ at the bottom of this post.
She makes her teaching easy-to-digest by giving a few anecdotal stories, but her anecdotal examples are often totally irrelevant and inapplicable to the nefarious covert mind-control strategies used by men who abuse their female intimate partners.
Leslie’s personal experience is with a ‘destructive’ mom, not an abusive husband, and it’s pretty obvious that her knowledge about intimate partner abuse is second hand and theory based. She has never lived with the utter confusion, brainwashing and CPTSD that being abused by a husband (and betrayed by your church) brings. She makes it sound so easy to just not be abused by working on yourself and live your own happy fulfilling life while having empathy for how broken your husband is and setting boundaries against his overtly abusive behaviours. That may work with a ‘destructive mom’ when you are an adult with your own life and great husband, but good luck with that while you are married to an evil man!
– email from a survivor who now helps women get free.
Leslie tells the abused woman that she needs to figure out how to stop letting her abuser erode her self-confidence. But at the same time, she tells the abused woman to stop trying to figure out what her abuser is doing. That’s a double-bind if ever there was one! It is like telling a building owner he MUST figure out how to stop letting graffiti vandals spray graffiti on the walls of his building, while simultaneously telling him that he must NOT try to figure out when and how the vandals are getting at the walls of the building to spray their foul messages.
IMO, every abuser has the same goal, but they don’t work in the exact same ways. Abusers work hard to get into our heads in order to abuse us. Victims, in turn, might try to get into the heads of the abusers in order to know how to resist them!
I wanted to keep as much separation as possible from my abuser, but in order to stay alive I had to get into his head, while still trying to prevent him from getting into mine.
Leslie urges an abused woman to figure out what SHE has been doing that allows this angry and controlling man to make her feel so afraid and small. That is another double bind. It’s like telling an altar boy that he needs to figure out what he has been doing that allows the priests to molest him.
Leslie even blames the victim for blaming the abuser! Yes, you heard me right. I know this for a fact because a woman who has done Leslie’s CONQUER program reported to me that Leslie tells the women: “It’s tempting to make him into the bad guy and feel like the victim instead of taking responsibility for your own safety, your own health, your own sanity and your own growth.”
Let me offer you, dear reader, a reality check—
- The abuser IS the bad guy.
- If you are a victim it is okay to say that your abuser IS the bad guy.
- If you are a victim, it is okay to tell the world that you are not to blame for what your abuser did to you.
- The victim can face and voice the fact that she is a victim, while at the same time making choices for her own health, safety, sanity and growth.
- If the victim doesn’t want to call herself a victim, she can call herself a survivor because she is a survivor, even if her perpetrators are still abusing her.
- I will reverse the genders to help male victims of abuse who read this blog:— If the victim doesn’t want to call himself a victim, he can call himself a survivor because he is a survivor, even if his perpetrators are still abusing him.
Emphasis on the victim calling the abuser to repentance
Another thing that some victims find off-putting about Leslie’s work is that she urges the victim to call the abuser to repentance. She advises the abused woman to speak to her husband telling him what specific things in his conduct and attitude are wrong. She encourages and coaches the abused woman to speak to her husband in a way which will give him the best chance of becoming aware of the destructive things he is doing, so that he might repent and change his ways.
This is problematic for several reasons. Firstly, it assumes that abuser is not conscious or intentional about his wrongdoing. That is not true. See Don Hennessy’s material.
Secondly, it puts a burden on the victim which is not the victim’s burden to bear – a burden that Christendom has been laying on victims for literally centuries.
She urges the woman to have compassion for the abuser’s blindness and the fact that he is overcome by darkness. She says that if the woman maintains compassion for the abuser, without enabling him, that not only protects her from staying a victim, but it protects her from becoming an abuser herself. She tells women the way to do this is to set good boundaries. Be strong and firm with you ‘No’ while being kind and caring as well. Step back from the abuser when you have to. Deliver consequences where needed, and stick to them. But make sure you do this clearly, firmly, and lovingly; don’t be angry, mean, hateful or bitter!
She suggests phrases for speaking to your abuser: “I love you, but I will not continue to allow myself to be treated this way.” Or “I care about you, but it’s not okay with me that you treat me this way even if you’re upset.”
Am I wrong to think these phrases are unrealistic? If I said things like that to my abuser he would probably mock me sarcastically. I could say, “It’s not okay for you to treat me this way.” But to say “I love you” at the beginning seems lame. What would be more honest is if I said, “I hate the way you are treating me, and God hates it too.” But to do that would be very risky.
– email from a woman who is doing the Conquer program
Being angry at abusers and hating abuse are pretty much the same as being outraged about what abusers do.
If I didn’t leave and don’t continue to stay away at all costs – committed to reality and truth of what’s going on – I’ll die in more ways than one, and my children will continue to become like him. I’m angry at the evil done by him and angry that it’s covered up and justified by this church. If I don’t stay angry at abuse I’ll do just what they do. And I’m committed to never going back to the lie – meaning I’ll always be outraged by abuse wherever it is.
Leslie’s suggestions about how the abused woman is to speak to her abuser remind me a little of John Piper’s ludicrous suggestion when he answered the question “What should a wife’s submission look like if he’s an abuser?”
Thirdly, it pushes victims onto the mouse-wheel of self-scrutiny about whether they have personally done enough to call the abuser to repentance:
I see CORE as a call to arms, a call to truth, and personally I used it to make sure I had done everything in my power to salvage a long time marriage to an unrepentant man…..in as far as I was able. I took responsibility for my responses and took the high ground while not engaging in sinful aggressive behavior toward my husband. It went from bad to worse as he used my honesty to further his abuses and pick at my shortcomings and failures.
It was ten years after the divorce when I first saw any Vernick posts/videos but I was still, after a decade, struggling with whether I had done enough (!!!) to salvage the relationship. So I revisited all of the questions again, reviewed all of the responses, made clear my no contact rules, and continued the search for truth and meaning in all that happened during thirty years. Clearly I took more responsibility and tried harder!
– Mary Reid
Dangers inherent in Leslie’s approach
The best application of Leslie’s book is helping us recognize and name the abuse… After that her clarity falls apart a good bit into a mishmash of spiritual steps, many of which are dependent on the recognition and support of those outside the abusive system. Leslie has women engaging waaaaaay too long in the unending counseling/ communication loop and not separating for quite a while into process; thereby giving the abuser access to her head and thoughts etc.
– Alaine Nicole E
When the victim tells the abuser how his specific evil behaviours are affecting her, this just gives him more information about what his victim is thinking and feeling. The abuser will typically utilise this information to refine his strategies even further in order to continue re-offending, re-grooming and re-offending. He use all the information she gives him to become more crafty, more manipulative, more duplicitous.
Leslie always advises the target of abuse that before leaving the abuser or doing anything “radical”, the target should make a list of grievances and approach the abuser with it when he was calm and happy. Then, if/when he gets all upset for confronting him, the target was supposed to just calmly repeat that this discussion was not going to veer off topic and she was to keep on repeating the items on the list. The target was supposed to have built up so much inner strength and vision of who she was in Christ that she could let his insults during this confrontation roll off her “armor”. That whole process just seemed bizarre to me for several reasons.
1) Confronting an abuser when he’s calm and happy is not only counter-intuitive, it can also be dangerous. The target has learned to walk on eggshells for a reason. He can turn on her at any moment. Self-preservation has taught her never to poke the sleeping bear. The book tells her she just has to build up enough intestinal fortitude so what he does to her won’t bother her. It’s like telling her to poke the bear, but not to let what happens next bother her because she’s toned her abs. It’s dangerous. And weird.
2) If he feels confronted, and it feels different to him than other fights, he may realize that he’s losing power over her, making him even more dangerous. Many of us have heard the statistics, heard the stories, that DV murders occur most frequently when the victim is planning to leave or right after she leaves. Demonstrating to him that he’s losing power over her, startling him that she seems different all of a sudden, showing that he can’t hurt her or rile her or cripple her emotionally like he used to – all of that is just asking for trouble. I don’t care how “grounded in Christ” she may have worked herself up to be. He is not grounded in Christ. And now, his domain has been threatened.
3) Leslie’s ideas that the target needs to get herself “grounded in Christ” is completely unrealistic. Christ is a spiritual being whose words she hears off a page in a book that she may not be allowed to read or may not have time to read. Her abuser is a looming physically-present being who tears her down in some way everyday. When it’s wave after wave, she will not have the time or energy to “center her worth and value in what Christ says about her.” I’m out of my situation for a few years now, and I still don’t know how to do that. The best thing I’ve found is to finally hear big waves of truth. I know I had not heard anything previously like what I’m hearing now from Ps Jeff’s Wise as Serpents series, Barb’s talk on the concubine in Judges, and Liam Goligher’s sermons.
All I had ever heard before was about the sin of the week, shame on you for doing it, and the four Q’s or the five P’s to overcome it. I’d hear about breaking one part of the law means you’ve broken the whole thing. I’d hear how we need to “love” the “difficult” people who are hurting so much that now they’re hurting you. So, how does an abuse victim “center herself” in that?
– Moody Mom
When the abused woman shows her husband that she is determined to hold him accountable, he will do whatever he can to try to tighten the thumbscrews. He may escalate the abuse in more scary abusive outbursts and verbal shredding, to terrify her into submission. Or he may fake repentance and reformation in order to suck her back in. Or he may deviously and covertly manipulate her to wear down her clear-headed determination to hold him accountable. He can and will be a chameleon of many colours: he will do whatever works to help him continue abusing ‘his’ target woman.
I do love and support Leslie and her book was very useful in my journey. She just needs the critical truths that Don Hennessy teaches to add to her understanding of the dynamics of abuse.
– Alaine Nicole E
Don Hennessy calls men who abuse their intimate female partners “male intimate abusers”. He says these men will go out of their way to find a woman they can take advantage of.
He says these men select, groom and brainwash their victims in order to offend against them long term. He describes how the male intimate abuser selects, targets, grooms, brainwashes, offends, re-grooms and re-offends against his target:
If he meets somebody who has more self-interest than concern for him, or who doesn’t respond the way he wants, he tends to move on. Abusers look for kindness, and they abuse that kindness.
They are probably the biggest Con Men I have come across in my life. They are very capable of presenting themselves in whatever way is attractive to the woman. If she tries to leave, he will pull her back. He will convince her that if she changes or improves, everything will be okay.
She is constantly being re-groomed. The process is exactly the same as with a paedophile. And as with the paedophile, the primary sense of entitlement is sexual.
– link, with sources for where Don Hennessy said these things.
Shall we apply some of the principles of CORE to Leslie?
The C in CORE stands for Committed to truth and reality. Maybe Leslie could do with a reality check herself!
Leslie urges the abused woman to be open to the possibility that the stories she is telling herself in her own head are not true. I wish Leslie would be more open to that possibility herself.
– email from a woman who is doing the Conquer program.
An abusive man leaves no room for any of the work that Leslie recommends the victim do. I believe living with an abusive, controlling destructive, hateful man will make it impossible to build a CORE. To stay with an abuser is the opposite of the C in CORE, because the abuser NEEDS you to believe and live under his lie. I can’t even do a simple house chore or enjoy anything without my husband sabotaging it. I mean, I like sunny days like anyone else, and because I enjoy that he’d make sure I was convinced to stay inside somehow. Not just for the day either. If I didn’t go along with his plan or belief, then I would certainly pay later on. He was teaching me ever so subtly to eventually not enjoy anything and to not be responsible because there was always a consequence if I did. Always.
The O in CORE stands for Open to growth, instruction and feedback.
Leslie urges the abused woman to invite wise others to talk over her internal stories, so that she is “not overreacting or under reacting” because she is not telling herself the truth.
– email from a woman who is doing the Conquer program.
I invite Leslie to listen to feedback from abused women who think that Leslie is not telling herself the truth.
In Leslie’s acronym CORE, the O stands for “Open to growth, instruction and feedback”. This sends the message that others know something you don’t and that you must be open to learning it. Learning from ACFJ and the ACFJ commenters – those who are outraged by abuse and don’t empathize with abusers – is the only support so far that has helped me see the truth. To be open (safely) is having other abuse-educated non-abusers and non-allies who support those who are abused, and who do not support those who abuse. Otherwise you may be hearing good information from a twisted source which equals twisted information.
The E in CORE stands for Empathetic and compassionate toward others without Enabling destructive behaviour.
In my opinion, the only “enablers” are the ones who abuse or agree with the abuser. I’m over believing “it’s crucial that you not lose your empathy and compassion even in a destructive marriage.” I CAN’T have empathy or compassion for my abuser. If I do, I’m in trouble: I’m walking into a set-up somehow eventually.
As Don Hennessy points out, abusers select and target women who are empathic and kind. So victims of domestic abuse are usually high in empathy already!
Don’t get me started on her CORE strength model where the E stands for empathy for the abuser. Aaarrrgh. It was empathy for my husband that KEPT me in the marriage for so long and increased the damage he did to me.
– email from a survivor who now helps women get free
Leslie says that having empathy or compassion for your abuser doesn’t mean you enable him or trust him or allow him to continue to hurt you. But the problem is, in urging victims not to enable the destructive behaviour Leslie subtly but effectively does two things:
- She conceals the abuse (row one in the graphic) by not recognising how sophisticated abusers are at invading and brainwashing the minds of their targets.
- She obfuscates some of the abusers’ responsibility (row two in the graphic) by making it sound like victims are to some degree responsible for “enabling” their abusers.
Leslie talks about facing reality. Well, here is reality:
- The abuser carries out the abuse.
- Institutions and attitudes in society and the church enable him to get away with it.
- The victim does not enable the abuse: she determinedly and prudently resists the abuse.
- The abuser is 100% responsible for the abuse.
- Society and the church are responsible for the degree to which they passively or actively enable the abuser to get away with it.
- The victim is not responsible for the abuse.
- The victim is not responsible for the continuation of the abuse.
- It is wrong for counselors and advocates to tell victims they need to stop enabling the abuse.
The devaluing of victims is endemic because, as Don Hennessy says, “the skilled offender has drawn us over to his worldview. He has targeted us all. We have all be targeted without even knowing it.”
I don’t think that women who are abused lack respect, empathy, or a willingness to learn. I think they have those things already. They’ve been duped and forced to believe twisted lies in order to merely survive each day. Perhaps Leslie’s book would be better applied if there weren’t so much deception and wickedness running rampant in this world. Because it isn’t just the abuser lying – it’s otheirr women and men and churches and police who have this ugly and twisted idea that victims are worthless and not to be believed or respected.
No wonder many victims find Leslie’s work confusing! She says that the abuser is 100% responsible for his wrongdoing, but out of the other side of her mouth she urges the victim to take responsibility for calling him to repentance and no longer “enabling” him. And she does all this without sufficient regard for the danger this creates for many victims.
To pathologise means “to regard or treat as psychologically abnormal” (Oxford Dictionary).
The R in CORE stands for Responsible for yourself and Respecting others without dishonouring yourself.
Leslie urges victims to respect to respect others…but she disrespects victims by pathologising them. She is not alone in this. Many helping professionals do it, e.g., Chris Moles who is another member of the SBC’s ChurchCares teaching team.
Counselors, when you depict victims’ responses to abuse as defective, you convey that the victims are WRONG – which is what the abusers have been saying.
Leslie goes into details about how to not be “in sin” when she’s actually describing healthy responses that victims have like anger, normal coping mechanisms, and resistance.
She uses the term “reactive abuse” and calls it sin. But what she calls “reactive abuse” are totally understandable responses women have to being abused. Leslie should tell women that, so they won’t feel guilty. I think that if women are retaliating with, for example, physical violence, it’s a sign to get out.
She promotes being a “sweet gentle Christian woman” while also encouraging women to be strong and not tolerate abuse. She puts ALL the pressure on the women to do better, be better, react better. If I had done her program while I was still struggling with my overactive conscience, I would have gone stark raving mad with self condemnation. Whenever I read her material I feel like I need to walk on eggshells, afraid that I’m always on the verge of falling into sin.
Some of the stuff she teaches sounds really good, and there’s lots of bible verses thrown in, but I always just think “?!?!WHAT?!??!” When I read her stuff I can’t see how to implement it. It brings a similar confusion to me that my husband’s covert abuse brought – it looks so good on the surface but something is very, very off.
– email from a survivor who now helps women get free.
If counselors and bystanders elucidate and honour victims’ resistance, victims naturally gain confidence because the stigma of pathology is lifted. They feel their hope rising. They are better able to hear their own instincts – and the Holy Spirit. They are empowered to figure out and take action to enhance their future well-being and heal from the mind control of the abuser and his allies.
Another way Leslie pathologises victims is by belittling them:
Leslie’s book runs on the assumption that the target has never tried to communicate or explain the damage the abuser was doing. That’s just nonsense. She’s been living with the guy for a long time – years or even decades. And she has never thought to tell the guy that he’s hurting her? This mom never bothered to tell him that he’s hurting the kids? That he’s hurting their family? Their marriage? She may have eventually been cowed or worn down, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t tried. It doesn’t mean she hasn’t told him before. And it certainly doesn’t mean that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.
– Moody Mom
In addition, Leslie pathologises victims is by giving the idea that it is wrong to be a victim:
Leslie has this really negative idea of what it means to be a victim. She puts victims down by saying that victims are helpless – a victim depends on her abuser to change, or depends on a hero to help.
She tells women to stop focusing their energy on trying to get the abuser to change – that’s good advice. But she also tells women they need to figure how to stop being repeat victims. They need to grow into “warriors” instead of “chronic worriers”. They need to become “owners” instead of “repeat victims”. And the kicker is, she says this means being a God-centered woman rather than a self-centered or husband-centered or marriage-centered person.
– email from a woman who is doing the Conquer program.
Leslie’s victim/owner antithesis is not helpful. It all too easily discredits and pathologises victims for having a ‘victim mentality’.
FACT: When someone abuses another person, that person IS a victim of abuse. By telling victims that they need to become “owners” rather than “victims”, Leslie subtly conveys the idea that they are wrong (defective) for being victims.
FACT: Abused Christian women tend to be very God-centred while they are in the abuse, as well as after they leave. They are not self-centred. They sincerely desire to obey God. They pray a great deal. They examine their consciences; they confess when they think they have sinned; they strive to do better and be more godly in the future.
The problem is, they have been MIS-taught and brainwashed to believe that most of their responses to abuse are sinful, whereas most of their responses to abuse are righteous and godly responses to being abused! And who has brainwashed them? The abusers. And the visible church that has been hoodwinked by the narratives of abusers.
Of course, a victim-survivor is free to say about herself “I was lacking in certain qualities / skills / discernment / character traits.” …or… “I was enabling my abuser.” It’s fine if you want to speak that way about yourself; but please don’t speak that way about other victims.
The word “victim” can be used in many different ways:
Over time, I’ve noticed the word “victim” being used carefully AND capriciously. Sometimes it is used by an abuser to garner sympathy: I’m a victim so feel sorry for me. Or, abusers use it to avert accountability: you can’t blame me; I was a victim. Or, an abuser might use it to further debilitate their victim: you were a victim then and you always will be.
Sometimes it can be quite freeing: I had no idea I was a victim. Now I know I wasn’t responsible for what my abuser did to me. Or, I was a victim, and now I can offer help and hope to others who have been victims. Or, I was a victim, but Christ rescued me.
…Anyone, victim or not, should be held accountable for their own personal sins. But I am getting pretty fed up with USING the victim’s sins (real or imagined) as a way to deny them real justice.
Figure how what is and isn’t a victim (start with the Word of God) and apply it correctly to real people. The Bible is clear that bad things do happen to the innocent. The Bible is full of warnings to not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the poor in purse or in spirit—-because it’s a sin. Not because those people did anything wrong to deserve it. The Bible says it’s easy to choose to hurt them because of their less than ideal stations in life. The message stands: don’t hurt them—because it’s a sin.
One of the most beautiful, and precious experiences in coming to the Lord—-was coming to the foot of His cross. I realized that it was only there that I could unload everything (and I mean everything). Then He could tell me what I was personally responsible for (and required to repent), but also what I was NOT responsible for (and had no need of repentance).
No matter what His “verdicts” were, they were not only 100% trustworthy, but the solution was always right there in front of me: His cross. There was the haven I needed—-to be forgiven for my sins, but also be healed from those that had sinned against me. Either way, I was unburdened—–and free.
I wish we could testify to the unsaved in this way. Coming to Christ is not all about realizing your sinfulness, it’s also about realizing the sinfulness of others. Now, the latter is by no means a free pass to become self-righteous! But it brought me a great deal of freedom to know that my personal, chosen sins were not “relevant” in how others had chosen to sin against me.
– condensed from comment by Helovesme
Lastly, Leslie does not give clear messages about divorce for abuse
Her book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage does not state categorically that scripture condones divorce for domestic abuse.
Years ago, Leslie wrote a blog post for the Association of Biblical Counselors in which she approvingly quoted my view on the ‘God hates divorce’ slogan. Here is what she said:
Barbara Roberts writes in her book Not Under Bondage, “God did not say ‘I hate divorce’, nor did he condemn all divorce. We should therefore stop using the slogan ‘God hates divorce’. If we still need a slogan, it would be better to say, ‘God hates treacherous divorce, but he does not hate disciplinary divorce’. ”
In other words her extensive research shows that there are biblical grounds for divorce and one of them is abuse. [source, June 2014]
That is not the only time Leslie has recommended my work.
- She shared my presentation on The Levite’s Concubine at her blog in Nov 2013.
- In Oct 2014 she gave away to her followers a few copies of my book Not Under Bondage and Jeff Crippen’s first book. (I have emails to prove this.)
- In 2017 she gave a handout in which she recommended the ACFJ blog, Jeff Crippen’s first book and my book Not Under Bondage.
- She has recommended my book Not Under Bondage many times at her blog (Aug 2013, April 2014, June 2014, July 2014, Sep 2016).
But although she has recommended my book, she either does not understand or does not agree with many of the arguments I made in it. I say this with surety because in May 2018 she published a post at her blog in which she articulated her own understanding of the Bible’s teaching on divorce for abuse. In my view, she put forward several ignorant un-scholarly arguments. It was like she had only skimmed my book.
Dear reader, I always want to encourage you to do your own thinking and evaluation. If you want to think it through for yourself, I suggest you compare Leslie’s 2018 post What Biblical Grounds Are There For Divorce In The Face Of Abuse? with these three posts of mine:
- Biblical Grounds for Divorce for abuse
- True or False? “Jesus speaks of divorce being permissible, and his reason for such is that our hearts can be hard”
- God hates divorce? Not always.
¹ George Simon is a clinical psychologist who has acquired a lot of wisdom about manipulative people and character disorders. George Simon’s internet writings and books.
² I created the graphic about language from the work of Allan Wade and Linda Coates, especially their article Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operations – the link takes you to a PDF of the article which was originally published in the Journal of Family Violence (2007) 22:511-522.
³ The following items give tips for how to balance some of the scriptures that are often used on victims:
- Is it wrong to feel anger and hatred for my abuser? – an FAQ page from this blog
- Are we forbidden to judge? – Barbara Roberts
- Love covers a multitude of sins – but not all – Barbara Roberts
- The “root of bitterness” in Hebrews – it isn’t unforgiveness – Rebecca Davis
- Untwisting Scriptures that were used to tie you up, gag you, and tangle your mind – Rebecca Davis’s book, [*Affiliate link]
- Does “Turn the Other Cheek” Mean We Must Submit to Abuse? – Jeff Crippen
*Amazon affiliate link — ACFJ gets a small percentage if you purchase via this link.
Posts in this 5-part series
Part 5: Is this post.
Training for pastors and counselors
Distinguishing genuine victims from pseudo-victims
Other people’s thoughts about Leslie Vernick’s work
Karly Owen Foisy’s review of Leslie’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Karly is a counselor or mental health professional of some kind.
Comments about Leslie Vernick’s work at this post on our Facebook page.
How victims resist abuse, and why we need to elucidate and honour victims’ resistance
The Myth of “Stockholm Syndrome” and other labels which are used to discredit and pathologize victims of abuse – A synopsis of a video presentation by Allan Wade. The video is embedded in the post