As members of your faith community, we see you as persons of integrity. By your teachings we know you to be wise and insightful; unbiased and fair; nonjudgmental and kind. You are the ones who remind us of what is important in life and of our own intrinsic value. Knowing this, you are the ones we come to seeking wisdom, truth and direction when we feel afraid, lost and alone.
On average about three women die every day in the Untied States at the hands of the men who profess to love them. You are in a unique position to help save victims. As victims/survivors, this is what we would like you to know.
Should one of us show up in your office and say, “My husband is a good man. He works hard to provide for us but I’m a terrible wife. I can’t make my husband happy no matter how hard I try. I should know how but don’t. There is something terribly wrong with me. I’ve done everything I know how to do yet I can’t seem do anything right. I am a horrible, stupid person. A failure. I don’t know who else to turn to. I am here because I respect you. Help me be a good wife. Tell me how to make things better. Please don’t tell my husband I’ve come to see you, it will upset him.”
Would you know that what she is really saying is:
My husband (who may be a pillar of the church and highly respected in the community) is controlling and always angry with me. He screams at me and tells me I am stupid and worthless. That I deserve nothing and am lucky he keeps me around. My job is to do his bidding. If I don’t do it quick enough or to his liking, he punishes me. He is inconsistent in his requirements so I never know for sure exactly what I need to do to meet his standards. In the end, I rarely succeed. Then he will either scream at me or physically brutalize me. I have no money because he doesn’t allow me to work (or if I work, he takes my paycheck.) He doesn’t tell me anything about our financial situation. He accuses me of spending too much on myself, groceries and clothing for our children. Help me find a way to stay with him and end the abuse. I’m afraid that I can’t make it on my own. Coming here is dangerous for me. If you tell my partner about this appointment he will verbally and physically abuse me. I’m afraid that he might kill me.
Shocking, yes. Approximately 30% of women in the United States exist in, at least, verbally abusive relationships. Chances are one of us will come to you, broken and desperate. Would you know how to identify me as a victim and how to help?
As a faith leader, you can not only help by guiding me to organizations that can partner with me, but you are also in a unique position to help me with my spiritual questions. Listed below are suggestions on both of these fronts:
- If I show up with physical injuries encourage me (or take me) to the ER. Assure me that no one will contact the police or my husband unless I give permission (or because they are required by law to report life-threatening injuries.) Some injuries (i.e. strangulation) can result in death several hours (or even a day or two) after the incident occurred. In some states you are a mandatory reporter of suspected lethal violence. Know the law in your state. Have a procedure in place.
- Take seriously my fear of the perpetrator’s retaliation. He may appear to be the kindest member of your worship center — believe what I tell you, anyway. Trust that I know the abuser best and what the abuser is capable of doing.
- Acknowledge that this is a high-risk time for me, especially if I am minimizing the situation. It’s better to be overly cautious. Search the internet domestic violence sites for “safety planning” information. Use those materials to help me consider what I can do to stay safe until I am ready to leave.
- Attempting to do couple’s counseling or talking with my partner behind my back can be dangerous for the me and for you. It’s hard for people who have not been up-close and personal with abuse to understand how terrifying and dangerous it is for the victim and anyone who interferes in the perpetrator’s “business.” Consider what will happen after a couples counseling session where I have disclosed my partner’s bad behavior to you in front of him. While he may seem calm and contrite as we leave your office, rage is building inside him. When we return home he will take his fury out on me in a violent way. Therapists trained in dealing with domestic abuse agree that the best route is for the perpetrator to go into batterer’s treatment (not anger management, which is a different treatment) while the victim sees a therapist trained to work with victims of abuse.
- Don’t tell me to just leave my partner. This is a very difficult and complicated decision for me. There are many reasons why that may not be possible at this time. I have to leave in my own time-frame, when I feel ready. A women’s shelter or therapist trained in domestic abuse counseling can help me.
- Allow me to express my mixed feelings about the relationship. It’s not unusual that victims are torn between staying and leaving. While it’s a no-brainer for you, for me years of mind control and scare tactics kept me fearful and bound to the abuser. On average, it takes 7 attempts to leave before the victim stays out of the relationship. Be nonjudgmental if I chooses to stay with my abuser. Let me know your door is always open.
- Tell me it’s not my fault that he treats me this way. My partner is telling me that it is my fault and I believe him. See, if it’s my fault, I have some control and can change my behavior so things will go back to the way they were when we first met. I will twist myself into a pretzel to make that happen. Help me see that abuse is a choice my partner makes and that nothing I do is so awful that I deserve to be harmed.
- Tell me that this isn’t:
- My cross to bear.
- Karma for some terrible thing I did in a previous life.
- Something I have to endure because I made my bed, now I have to lay in it.
- Explain that my partner broke our covenant to love and cherish each other and I am released to leave. That God will understand. I take my vows to God seriously.
- Assure me that God loves me and wants me to be safe. Just like I want my children safe and happy.
- Teach me how a man should treat his wife according to God’s law. Clarify the submissive wife passage from Ephesians in the Bible. Show me what the Bible or our faith teachings say regarding how a man should treat his wife. Also clarify any passage or teaching that my partner may use to justify his behavior. Assure me that all men are not like this.
- Direct me to those who can teach me how to be safe now and how to safely get my children and myself out of the situation when I am ready. People who can help me negotiate the court system. Have the phone numbers for the women’s shelter hotline, domestic violence advocates, police, etc. on hand. Offer to let me call from your office.
- Encourage me to see a therapist who knows how to work with victims. Have the contact information for a few of them.
- Help me grieve:
- The fact that I cannot make my partner change. I fell in love with the man he pretended to be. If he could be that way then, why can’t he be that way all the time?
- The dreams that I had for my life with him. Help me move toward understanding that those dreams will not happen with this person. That I can have new dreams that can come true.
- Teach me how to pray about my situation. I’ve prayed to be a better wife and for my partner to change. He hasn’t. I don’t know how to pray about all this. Why should God listen to me?
- Tell me why God let this happen to my children and me. I carry a huge amount of guilt about what my children are going through as a result of my choices. Please don’t add to that guilt.
- Don’t let me lean on you in inappropriate ways. I am hurting and extremely vulnerable. It is your job to keep our relationship healthy and proper. I’m terrified to stand on my own two feet. Refer me to agencies that can help me take back my power and move forward.
- Should you suspect that I am using drugs, alcohol or other addictive behaviors to numb the pain, please direct me to help.
You are an important part of my recovery. I may feel angry with God for putting me through this. I may feel I’ve let God down. Since my faith is very important to me, your help sorting through my questions will strengthen my faith and remind me of God’s enduring love for me.